Iran’s new wealthy class has succeeded in tapping the opportunities provided by a vast domestic market, sometimes aided by corruption and erratic government policies. It includes children of people with close connections to some of Iran’s rulers, as well as families of factory owners and those who managed to get huge loans from state banks at low interest rates. The oil windfall — nearly $500 billion over the past five years — has also played a central role in establishing this small group that is visibly enjoying its profits.
Both supporters and critics of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say some of his economic policies designed to counter inequality are actually making things worse for many. And although some statistics show the gap between the Islamic Republic’s rich and poor has been stable over time, scenes of the rich flaunting their wealth have left many Iranians complaining.
The new wealthy are buying Porsches, getting caviar delivered to late-night parties, and eating $250 ice cream covered in edible gold at what’s billed as the highest rotating restaurant in the world.
From the top of Tehran’s 1,427-foot-high Milad Tower, Iran’s poor appear as tiny dots in the streets below.
“We provide a calm and luxurious atmosphere, away from Tehran’s daily problems,” said Ahmad Talaee, one of the owners of the Crown restaurant, as he received guests in the VIP section, with room for nearly 300 to enjoy $280 fixed-price meals, golden ice cream not included.
Construction workers in worn-out shoes waited in the hallway one recent afternoon to make final fixes at the restaurant, which opened in June, as a young couple in designer clothes fed each other shrimp flown in from the Persian Gulf. “As you can see,” the owner said, “we are re-creating the fairy tales of the legendary stories of ‘1,001 Nights’ right here in Tehran.”
But that ritzy lifestyle, set against a backdrop of increasing economic hardship for millions of ordinary Iranians, is leading to open criticism.
People are writing public letters complaining about the rise in inequality. Influential conservative blogger Amir Hossein Sabeti wrote last month that the shift in the way Iranians conduct themselves in public, increasingly ignoring the soberness that the revolution prescribed, is a bigger threat to Iran’s ideology than the United States or Israel.
“How can we discuss decency, simplicity and support for the oppressed when we have this culture of ostentatiously showing off wealth?” he asked. “Woe unto us the day that our policies stop supporting the needy, but support the wealthy,” he wrote, quoting famous words from the late founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.