It has been raining in Tehran for a couple of days and for once the sky isn’t grey with pollution. My early morning ritual begins: I walk the short distance to the taxi rank, install myself in a cab, and wait while the driver finds three more passengers travelling my way. He finally hunts down his last fare and the car moves off into heavy traffic, as usual. Normally I listen to my MP3 player but today I’m preoccupied with work: I have a presentation to make to a potential foreign client. Luckily, the driver isn’t young, so there’s no loud music. There are three types of taxi driver in Tehran: those who listen to music, usually by ‘banned’ Los Angeles-based Iranian singers; those who follow the radio news; and those whose car is so old that a new audio system would cost as much as the car. Today’s cab driver is of the second type.
The 8 a.m. news begins. ‘The disagreement between the city council and the provincial authorities over taxi fares deepens as the provincial authorities insist that fares should be reduced by up to 30 per cent.’ The driver laughs. ‘Yeah, right,’ he says. ‘What do you know about the costs of keeping a taxi up and running? Who’s going to take people to work if I don’t? You?’ None of the others reacts. They probably know that this is all a publicity battle waged by the hardline government against the newly moderate municipal authority and that no one expects the fares actually to go down.
Towards the end of the news bulletin one item catches my attention. ‘The IAEA board of governors will convene today. The director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, will present his report on Iran’s nuclear case to the members of the board.’ I start wondering, not for the first time, what I would do if sanctions were imposed. I’d probably lose my job. It wouldn’t matter whether or not we got our new foreign client.
The next day I have a class to teach. I am late so I book a taxi through an agency. The driver is a young man with an Iranian-assembled Peugeot. The Iranian car industry is dominated by French technology, thanks mainly to the US trade embargo. French manufacturers have licensed their assembly lines to the Iranian government, which holds a monopoly on the car industry, so Iran can manufacture substandard versions of French cars and sell them at outrageously high prices to Iranians. As an incentive to get people to buy these cars, the government subsidises petrol, offers expensive loans for car purchases, and ensures that demand always outstrips supply. Despite all this, the manufacturers still report annual losses or very small profits. Tehran now has more cars than it has roads to hold them and the government is forced to import petrol at inflated prices to keep up with demand.
Most of my students are young people from affluent families who have failed the national university entrance exam, in which 1.5 million candidates compete for 200,000 places in state-funded universities. Some of those who don’t get in take IT courses like mine, sponsored by a British institute, because the diploma will enable them to apply to third or fourth-year undergraduate programmes in certain foreign universities, mostly in Britain.
In the mid-1980s, the authorities expected the war with Iraq to go on indefinitely, and encouraged people to have more children. When the war ended they were faced with a huge number of young people who needed education and jobs. The system was overwhelmed. Students like mine, with enough money, plan to go abroad to complete their education and maybe to stay for good. Those whose families can’t afford such courses will end up undereducated, unemployed, and likely to fall for the populist slogans of people like Ahmadinejad, who looks, dresses and talks like a member of the underprivileged classes.
Not long ago, Ahmadinejad declared that women should be allowed into stadiums to watch football matches. This was surprising, since just days before there had been talk of cracking down on women who do not properly observe the hijab. Ahmadinejad’s announcement upset the mullahs. One said that the president should ‘consult the clerics and Islamic scholars before making any comments’. I’ve come to the conclusion that what Ahmadinejad says in public is the product neither of calculation nor of his fundamentalist convictions. He is inspired by the moment’s atmosphere. He meets some Baseejis – Islamic paramilitary forces – gets excited and calls for Israel to be wiped off the map. He faces a cheering crowd of men and women and says something to make them cheer more.
When I get back to work, one of my colleagues shows me the website of a Western courier company, which announces that the delivery of documents to Iran has been suspended. She wonders if this is an early indication of sanctions.
A week later I go to Tehran’s 19th International Book Fair with a friend. I’ve been going to the fair’s opening day since I was a student, and even managed to visit during my military service a few years ago. The fair was the only place I could get my hands on the books I needed for my studies. All the major Western publishers sell new titles at a discount subsidised by the government. Stocks are limited, so there is a great rush for books, especially among students. Titles on engineering and medicine are in particular demand.
I expected there to be fewer foreign books than during the eight years of Khatami’s presidency. But there seem to be more good foreign titles than there were last year. Things look less rosy in the Iranian publishers’ section, however. There are almost no new books. At one stand my friend looks for books by Foucault’s translator, who always used to be there, enthusiastically answering questions. This year there is no sign of him, or any of his books.
I need to wire some money to a friend in Canada. I’ve done it before so I know what to do. You need a whole bunch of sort codes along with the foreign currency in cash, and then you go to a special branch of a bank that does overseas wire transfers. It sounds so simple.
‘Hello. I’d like to wire some money to this account in Canada.’
‘We don’t do that unless you have an account in our branch.’
‘I have one in a branch of your bank just a few blocks from here.’
‘No, it would have to be an account opened in this branch.’
‘But I used to do wire transfers from here all the time.’
‘The rules changed a couple of months ago.’
‘Hello. I’d like to make a wire transfer to an account in a Canadian bank.’
‘We don’t work with Canadian banks.’
‘We just don’t. We used to but we don’t work with banks in North America any more.’
‘Hello. I’d like to transfer some money to Canada. It’s about $100. Nothing big.’
‘Sure. Please talk to the lady behind that desk. She’ll help you.’
‘Good morning. The lady over there told me you could help me with a wire transfer to Canada. It’s just about $100.’
The woman looks amused. ‘First of all, if you want us to do a wire transfer, you’ll have to sign this consent form. It relieves the bank of all liabilities in the event of the money not reaching its destination.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, for the last couple of months we have been unofficially embargoed. If you are wiring money to a North American bank, your funds might get frozen on the way, and we can’t do anything about it. And second, it would cost you $75 to wire the money, so I don’t think it’s worth it if you’re wiring $100.’
‘Hello. I want to wire around $100 to a Canadian bank account. Can you do that?’
‘Tell me, is it a registration fee?’
‘Would it make a difference?’
‘Well, if you can, it’s best if you just give the money to someone who is going there. It’s much easier.’
‘But I want the money sent immediately. Can you do it?’
‘Well, until about a month ago we could wire funds in US currency to banks in Canada. But they’ve embargoed us, so there’s no guarantee the money will reach its destination.’
‘What about Canadian dollars?’
‘That would be better. But there’s still no guarantee, and anyway it will cost you. There will be some handling fees.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You don’t know?’
‘Well, the money takes several hops and at each point they might deduct a handling fee. And I just don’t know which banks the money will go through. It’s become rather crazy since the embargo.’
It seems that sanctions are already in place. But there’s something I don’t understand. My friends in Canada tell me the mullahs and their families are buying real estate worth millions of dollars a time in Vancouver and Toronto. I read in Iranian newspapers about hardline clerics like Mesbah-Yazdi, the ideological mastermind behind the Ahmadinejad phenomenon, being treated in London hospitals; yet I, a nobody, can’t pay my friend the lousy hundred bucks I owe her.