As Iran's Islamic Republic celebrates its 30th anniversary, its oil wealth is in decline and the confidence of the past decade looks increasingly brittle. But whatever happens in the June election America needs a fresh approachby Christopher de Bellaigue / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
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For most of this decade, as the price of hydrocarbons broke record after record and the big oil exporters watched their revenues soar, Iran seemed capable of riding out all the shocks that international politics, and George W Bush in particular, could throw at it. Bush included the country in his 2002 “axis of evil” speech; he invaded its neighbours to the east and west; and in 2006 the UN security council, pushed by the US and its European allies, imposed sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear programme.
Yet none of these actions dented the Iranians’ sense of immunity from misfortune. America’s travails in Iraq and Afghanistan ended whatever hopes Bush may have harboured of attacking Iran itself; the Americans were even forced to solicit Iranian co-operation in pacifying both. (Iran helped fitfully). As for sanctions, initially designed to curtail Iran’s purchase of nuclear equipment and its leading personalities’ ability to travel, these seemed a trifle next to the spiralling sums that the Iranians earned from the sale of their oil: $47bn in 2005, $58bn in 2006, $70bn in 2007. Tehran boomed while Baghdad and Kabul suffered, and a new middle class, shedding the old revolutionary austerities, discovered consumerism.
Today, the casual visitor to Tehran may judge that little has changed. The skyline over the northern, affluent end of the city is jagged with steel skeletons, as high-rises go up in place of recently demolished villas. In the bazaar in the centre of Tehran, the hub of Iran’s mercantile economy, it is common to see a porter, dragging his cart through the lanes, wearing a bandage over his nose—testament to the Iranian obsession, by no means confined to the middle class, for aesthetic “improvement.” But all is not as it seems. Work on hundreds of building projects has stopped, others progress at a snail’s pace. Bazaar traders complain of a severe downturn. Even Iran’s legions of plastic surgeons are feeling the pinch.