As Iran Presses Its Ambitions, Its Young See Theirs Denied

The unemployed pass their time smoking tobacco at a teahouse. Many in Iran turn to opium.
The unemployed pass their time smoking tobacco at a teahouse. Many in Iran turn to opium. (By Karl Vick -- The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 21, 2006

SHAFT, Iran -- The question that preoccupies most of Iran lay coiled in the sullen stare of Abbas Kayhan, 25 years old and stuck behind the counter of his father's corner store. It pulled his heavy brow even lower and traveled down a forearm that shuddered in anger with each word.

"But what about me?" the young man demanded, smack in the colorless center of a generation whose complaints have driven Iranian politics for more than a decade, with no satisfaction in sight.

"You people, you have got a very good life in the U.S. What is this place?" He glanced down the main street of a town called Shaft, where young men with gelled hair and no jobs sauntered at aimless angles. "Everything is miserable."

While the world focuses on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Iranians focus on the unmet aspirations of the two-thirds of the population that is younger than 30. Nearly three decades after a revolution that swept aside a monarchist system grounded in privilege, the typical Iranian has seen average income shrink under a religious government that has cultivated an elite of its own atop a profoundly dysfunctional economy.

The 80 percent of the population working in the private sector struggles mightily to make a living in the 20 percent of the economy that is not controlled by the government. The end product is a frustration edging into resentment that informs every private conversation with ordinary Iranians and frames every public issue.

It explains the stunning landslide victory 10 months ago of a relative unknown named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the only candidate in the presidential race who campaigned against the rich.

Dissatisfaction also accounts for much of the public support for Iran's nuclear program, despite widespread disdain for the ruling mullahs. In a country where time has seemed to stand still for a quarter-century, the public associates nuclear energy with economic development.

"The city of Shaft is just like anywhere else in the country," said Jafar Shalde, the owner of a housewares shop whose business on a recent morning consisted of one transaction: A woman returned the shelving she'd bought the day before, and Shalde gave her $3 back.

"There is not enough salary for the people," he said. "There is not enough income. They don't have enough money, so they don't buy anything.

"Normally, everything gets worse."

Shaft rests in the low-lying vermillion countryside below the Caspian Sea, its main street of tidy shops curving gently. The surrounding valley is checkered by rice paddies, and families lucky enough to own one eat the harvest themselves. Though economists call the region prosperous compared with most of Iran, residents say they need two jobs to survive. The local string factory, which used to employ 400, now has work for fewer than 100.

"Opium, yes. You can smell it in the evening," Shalde said of the drug many people in Iran -- more than in any other country in the world, according to U.N. figures -- use to fill days not filled by jobs.

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