Ali Abrishami, a fourth grade teacher, recently asked a group of students how they view their economic future in Iran. The responses were bleak. "I'm afraid of rising prices," one boy said. "I don't think I will find a job," said another. A third said simply: "I don't want to grow up."
These expressions of concern from a group of middle class 10-year-olds reflect Iran's bitter economic reality: a stagnant economy, persistent inflation, high unemployment, a weak currency and low wages. And the concerns are not limited to schoolchildren.
Viewed from abroad, Iran often seems to be a country worried mostly about Islamic causes. But two decades after the Shah fell and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set up an Islamic republic here, interviews and discussions with Iranians all over the country show a broad and intense desire for economic improvement.
Despite Iran's oil wealth, which brought in $15 billion last year and accounts for 80 percent of the country's hard currency earnings, the economy has declined in the past 20 years. Economists blame the costs of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, government mismanagement, a shaky oil market and international isolation. Unlike Iran's Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf, whose small populations ensure a high standard of living, Iran's population of 70 million strains the state-dominated economy.
The level of frustration is high, and political leaders have heard the message. President Mohammed Khatemi regularly refers to the "sick" economy and pledges major reforms. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who took over from Khomeini as supreme leader, always includes calls for economic rejuvenation in his speeches.
The Khatemi administration is working on a reform plan to be presented to parliament next year, pledging to privatize inefficient state-run industries, reduce red tape for the private sector, encourage foreign investment and boost non-oil exports. But Iranian economists say the task is daunting.
"We need major surgery to improve our economy," said Fariborz Raisdana, a Tehran economist and commentator. "Unless the government is prepared to take radical steps, we will remain mired in our current state of stagflation."
The numbers are grim. Inflation is officially estimated at 20 percent while wages are stagnant. Unemployment hovers at about 15 percent, while the country needs to create an estimated 1 million jobs a year to keep up with the growth of the population, half of which is under 21. Meanwhile, red tape chokes the private sector; inefficient, government-run factories stagnate; tough restrictions limit foreign investment; and business corruption rises.
"The problems are so deep that we will need a bulldozer to get through the mess," said Raisdana.
Government subsidies on basic foods and gasoline cushion some of the financial blows to the average Iranian, and a network of government- and mosque-based charitable organizations help the poor. Nevertheless, as the government debates how to reform the economy, the average Iranian struggles, often holding two or three jobs and sometimes resorting to underground or illegal economic activities to survive.
Ali Nikpour, a 25-year-old college graduate, is living on the economic edge. His day begins at 7 a.m., buzzing through the clogged streets of Tehran in a worn, broken-down 1977 Iranian-made car, searching for passengers. By 9 a.m., he goes to work in a Tehran pharmacy, working until the afternoon. After a short rest, he is back on the streets, his car straining against the traffic and noise and heat.
"When I get home at night, I just stare at the wall," Nikpour said. "I am so tired and so frustrated that I can't even read or listen to the radio. I worry all the time about paying my bills. I don't think I will ever have enough money to get married. What kind of life is this?"
Other young Iranians, however, thrive in the wheel-and-deal environment created by what one economist called a "bazaar economy." The young trader with a cell phone, motorbike and pocket calculator has become a familiar figure. In well-to-do north Tehran, there is little sign of stress among shoppers at the glitzy Golestan mall, although a large number of unfinished construction sites attests to the economic slowdown.
Many well-connected businessmen have accumulated massive wealth over the years through real estate and currency speculation and trading, prompting criticism from economists, such as Bijan Khajepour. "Much of this wealth has been created by abusing the system," he said.
Khajepour, however, is more concerned with deterioration of the middle class. "In 18 of the past 20 years, the average middle class family sold off assets, such as gold or carpets or property, in order to survive," he explained. "This is the most serious aspect of the economic crisis."
As with all important issues in Iran, the economic crisis is not immune from politics, which has intensified in the two years following the election of Khatemi. Conservatives frequently criticize the reformist president for paying too much attention to political and cultural issues and too little to economic concerns. Khatemi supporters argue that political development is a prerequisite for economic development.
Mohammad Rezai, a 51-year-old former truck driver, has little stomach for the debate.
"The government doesn't care about the people," he said. "These factional politics are just games."