In the narrow alleys of south Tehran, life is a struggle that feels anything but just.
The traditionally religious neighborhoods have long been a base of support for the Islamic republic and the 1979 revolution that led to its formation. The densely populated communities supplied tens of thousands of young men to fight in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. Their working classes formed a base of support that helped catapult Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005.
But the quality of life has been plummeting for families such as the Vahidis, a three-generation clan of 14 people crammed into three small floors of a roughly built house. On a recent day, the 80-year-old matriarch, Khatoon Vahidi, lay quietly trembling in a room, the victim of a recent stroke; her three daughters said they have halved the dosages of her medication because the imported drug she needs has tripled in price.
“We love our supreme leader. We just hope a better president comes,” said 45-year-old Mahboobeh Vahidi, the oldest of the daughters and a mother of four. Devout, working-class Shiite families such as the Vahidis compose much of Iran’s population of 75 million, but with an election to choose Ahmadinejad’s successor less than two weeks away, some are questioning old allegiances.
The economic problems are rooted in international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear activities and in the country’s mismanagement of its oil wealth. The troubles have rattled the Vahidis’ confidence, added to their resentment about rising inequality and kindled doubts about conservative candidates such as Saeed Jalili, the country’s top nuclear negotiator, who have said little about economic concerns while preaching the value of resistance against foreign foes.
“Resistance doesn’t do anything for us,’’ said Masoumeh, a younger sister, as she described how neighbors in south Tehran had begun to hoard cooking oil and rice, knowing that prices will probably rise again whenever new sanctions are enacted.
The Vahidis are not alone in trying to decide whom to blame. Inflation, unemployment and the disappearance of many programs the local government used to fund have transformed the neighborhood for the worse, residents say.
“We were a poor family from the beginning, and we dealt with our own challenges. But the problems are much worse now,” Masoumeh said. “It was safer before. We have lots of addicts now. At night, we’re afraid to move around in dark alleys.” Heroin and opium addicts, she says, are a regular sight at all hours.
Each of the three sisters is married with children; the families earn the equivalent of about $170 per month, less than the average in Tehran, the Iranian capital, but nowhere near the bottom of the ladder. Two of the husbands are related to each other, and they work together in a family-owned restaurant that specializes in kale pache, a traditional soup made of sheep offal, especially lambs’ feet, eyes, brain and tongue. The third husband, an Iran-Iraq war veteran, is an orderly in a nearby hospital.
But the families’ economic futures are uncertain. The two husbands’ restaurant will close soon, because the building that houses it has been slated for demolition by the local government, which is planning to build a highway. The third, who suffers from respiratory and digestive problems, was denied benefits from the government for injuries suffered in a chemical weapons attack by Saddam Hussein’s army.
“Every alley down here is named after boys from the neighborhood who died in the war. It’s always the same. We make sacrifices, but it’s for the benefit of other people,” said Mahboobeh, the veteran’s wife, as the family gathered in a living room to meet with a visitor.
“Why do we have to complain to God about how little we have while other people in Tehran can thank Him for giving them so much?” asked the third sister, Mansoureh.
Around the corner from the Vahidis’ house, a middle-aged man sat atop a mountain of personal belongings. “They got evicted last week because they couldn’t pay their rent,” explained Masoumeh’s 17-year-old son, Ali. “Twenty-four hours a day, some member of the family sits with their stuff so no one steals it.”
Under Ahmadinejad, who took office in 2005 and was reelected four years later, the Iranian government has introduced a series of populist programs. But the Vahidis say the outcome has left them more disillusioned than ever by politicians’ promises for a better life.
First came the targeted subsidy reform, which replaced heavy subsidies on utilities and basic staples with monthly cash deposits to most Iranians — the equivalent of $15 a month for each of the Vahidi sisters’ families. But rampant inflation has eaten away at the value of those handouts, and many economists say the cash grants themselves have contributed to the rapid increase in prices.
Another program designed to appeal to the poor was the Mehr housing complex, which offered a first opportunity of homeownership to millions of urban Iranians, if they were willing to move to the large communities of apartment blocks built away from major cities.
All three of the sisters signed up to take part in the program and have made initial deposits, but they doubt they will ever move from their neighborhood.
“My biggest dream is to become a homeowner, because our rent is increasing every year,” Mansoureh said.
But the only person the Vahidi sisters know who moved to one of the Mehr developments returned with her husband and infant child to her mother’s home after several months, because there was no elevator to her seventh-floor apartment and the building experienced regular water and electricity outages.
Such disappointments have unsettled their faith in state-funded programs aimed at providing poor Iranians with a better life. Even Koran classes that used to be paid for by the government cost money.
Among the eight candidates vying to become Iran’s next president is Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. In a recent television appearance, he acknowledged that homelessness in his city has skyrocketed in the past months and promised — without offering specifics — that he would remedy Iran’s economic problems within two years.
But other candidates, including Jalili, have said much less about the economy, with the nuclear negotiator running on a platform that “resistance is the key to success.”
Despite the Vahidis’ mounting problems, which seem unlikely to recede under a new president, they say they remain loyal to the Iranian system and its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If the government asked poor people to come out into the street and be counted, we would definitely go,” Mansoureh said. “Everyone would go.”
As for choosing a presidential candidate, Mahboobeh said, “If I could, I’d write in the Mahdi,” referring to the central figure in Shiite Islam who the devout believe is hidden among humanity and will one day reveal himself, ushering in a period of justice.