On paper, Iran’s economy is holding up relatively well given the world is in the throes of a once in a century pandemic.
The country’s non-oil sector shrank by a mere 0.6 percent in the quarter ended June 20, according to the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) – despite enduring the most acute COVID-19 crisis in the Middle East.
But when you consider how badly Iran’s economy had been damaged pre-COVID by United States economic sanctions, the modest contraction takes on a different light.
That nuance is not lost on Iranians who live with the fallout of Washington’s relentless economic blacklisting campaign and years of government economic mismanagement.
That pain ripples into everyday lives in the form of incessant inflation and falling purchasing power as the local currency – the rial – is besieged.
The tough choices that result are often shared by Iranians on social media.
“Last week, I examined a young woman with a benign lump in her breast at the clinic,” a doctor wrote on Twitter. “I told her, ‘Do another sonography in six months, it’s unlikely it will grow, but if it does you better operate’. She came back and said I want to operate now. When I asked the reason, she said, ‘Now I can pay for it, in six months I might not be able to’.”
“How do they live?’
According to the Statistical Centre of Iran (SCI), inflation spiked 34.4 percent year over year for the month ending September 21, and 4 percent from the previous month.
Severe as those figures are, they may well underestimate eroding purchasing power.
Iran’s central bank used to publish inflation data as well, but it ran consistently higher than the figures compiled by the statistics office. Last year, the government of President Hassan Rouhani ordered the central bank to stop publishing those figures.
But on Iranian social media, how the data is crunched does not elicit the same degree of passion as living with inflation feels.
Some tweets are redolent with angst.
“Seriously, how do [minimum wage] Iranian workers live on 4 million tomans [$143] a month at the most?” one user asked on Twitter.
“When do they go on trips? Where can they buy a house or a car? How could they have good food? What about savings? How could they wear good clothes? What place do recreational activities have in their life? When do they smile? Why have we become so miserable?”
The lack of predictability every day is another common theme.
One twitter user wrote about a restaurant near her work that has stopped publishing prices on its menus because they change so frequently to keep pace with inflation.
“To order, you have to call every day and ask, ‘How much is one set of [kebab] koobideh today?’” she wrote.
In a broadcast interview earlier this month, the spokesman of the Consumer and Producer Protection Organization of Iran (CPPO) acknowledged the toll rising prices are taking on consumers but said there is little the agency could do to alleviate their hardships, aside from preventing hoarding.
“We have to accept the expensiveness of goods,” he said.
Vulnerable to currency fluctuations
The major culprit of rampant inflation has been a seemingly unstoppable decline in the value of the Iranian rial against the US dollar and other widely used foreign currencies.
The Iranian national currency embarked on a precipitous slide three years ago in anticipation of US President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
The currency has enjoyed only fleeting periods of stability ever since thanks to Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign of successive rounds of sanctions targeting Iran’s economy that have continued unabated during the coronavirus pandemic.
This year alone the rial has lost 50 percent of its value against the US dollar on the open market, hitting an all-time low of 300,000 to $1 on October 1.
By Sunday, it had clawed back some of those losses to trade at 280,000 to $1.
Congratulations, we are now poor’
In an effort to keep basic goods affordable for Iranians, the government maintains an official exchange rate of 42,000 to $1 to pay for imports of essentials – but food prices continue to soar.
“It may be possible to curb price increases of foodstuffs for a while,” Mohammad Mahidashti, a macroeconomic analyst with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs told Al Jazeera, “but ultimately all prices adjust themselves with the currency rate.”
And that adjustment has been brutal.
“Iranians’ purchasing power, especially those on steady monthly incomes, is on average one-fifth of what it was three years ago,” said Mahidashti.
Nose-diving real incomes have left many Iranians living on a financial knife-edge – dreading unexpected expenses, such as the breakdown of an electronic device or home appliance.
“Dear God,” one user wrote in a gallows-humored tweet that resonated with many, “I beseech you on your greatness and glory, protect our electronic devices!”
To help subsidise essential goods, Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has promised to fast-track legislation for an electronic coupon system that was first proposed more than two years ago by the Rouhani administration.
“By no means will we allow low-income households’ food basket to shrink,” he promised.
The last time Iran used a coupon system for basic goods was during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that ended in 1988.
While the government mulls relief measures, Iranians have been wrestling with relentless inflation for so long that some have become resigned to it.
“Have you noticed how we don’t really feel the new wave of dollar price increase from 180,000 to 270,000?” one user tweeted. “Because in the first wave to 130,000 and second to 180,000 many of our interests and hobbies were completely eliminated step-by-step and now it doesn’t even matter if it reaches 500,000 because we lost our purchasing power a long times ago.
“Congratulations, we are now poor.”
Sometimes that resignation takes on a hue of despair.
“With a 260,000 dollar you no longer say my dreams are burnt and immigration is impossible, that was for the 70,000 dollar,” tweeted one user. “No, it’s about survival. I’ve made a list and I’m checking all the foods I can no longer eat.”
Many low-income households in Iran, for example, can no longer afford to buy red meat.
An August poll by the Iranian Students Polling Agency found that 8 percent of Iranian households have not consumed red meat for a year, while 14.4 percent said they have only had red meat a handful of times during that period.
The head of the Iranian Mutton Association, Ali Asqar Maleki, announced late last month that so far this calendar year, meat sales have declined by 35 percent on average compared with the previous year.
Butter and eggs have also experienced significant and sudden price jumps since August.
That food price inflation maelstrom has wrong-footed some officials.
Earlier this month, spokesman of the Iranian Food and Drug Administration Kianoush Jahanpur made headlines for what critics called tone-deaf comments suggesting people should simply swap butter for avocados and olive oil – substitutes that are significantly costlier than butter.
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