- - Thursday, February 23, 2012

TEHRAN Ordinary families here have begun to feel the bite of new international sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, as basic food items have doubled and tripled in price in the past few weeks.

“Prices are going up all the time, and it’s getting really hard to make ends meet,” Bolour, a housewife, said in a downtown Tehran shop. “But what can we do? Sanctions are to blame.”

The latest round of sanctions has complicated Iranian payments for food deliveries at international banks, causing spiraling inflation in the capital, Tehran, and other cities.

Iran’s official inflation rate is just over 20 percent, but locals say the real figure is at least twice that.

Salaries have failed to keep pace with the ever-rising cost of living. Government workers recently received a pay raise of 6 percent.

Tehran locals say life is getting more difficult.

“I have to change price tags almost every other day,” said store owner Yusef, standing in front of a portrait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

No nuclear inspections

“Imported rice, for example, has gone up by around 25 percent in the last few days,” he said. “As for foreign-brand cigarettes, they are so expensive now that almost no one can afford to smoke them.”

Iranians agreed to be interviewed only if their last names were not used and no photographs of them were taken.

“I don’t want any trouble,” said one shopkeeper who declined to be interviewed, as the call to evening prayer sounded from a nearby mosque. “I might say the wrong thing, and I could lose my trading license.”

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Iran’s central bank and Iranian oil the bedrock of the country’s economy to persuade the Islamic republic’s leaders to curb their suspected efforts in building a nuclear weapon.

Tehran has long denied that it is seeking to make an atomic bomb and insists that its nuclear program is geared only for peaceful, civilian uses. But the regime has not cooperated with international nuclear inspections.

The International Atomic Energy Agency conceded defeat Wednesday in trying to inspect Iran’s nuclear sites. An Iranian military leader warned that Tehran would conduct a pre-emptive strike against any country it deems a threat.

Meanwhile, U.S. and European officials have said they are looking for ways to ban Iranian companies from the international payment system known as Swift, which would isolate Iran financially and further raise prices for ordinary Iranians.

Prices are increasing shortly before parliamentary elections that are widely seen as a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.

“All small businesses are suffering,” said Hossein, the manager of a photography services shop. “People have less money to spend, and many firms are simply laying staff off.”

Life may be getting hard for Iranians, but there is little indication that an Arab Spring-type revolt lies in the future.

It has been more than two years since thousands took to the streets to protest alleged voting fraud after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Those demonstrations ended with hundreds jailed and opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi being placed under house arrest.

The beleaguered opposition tried to stage a protest rally here on Feb. 14, but riot police swamped the few who turned up.

Nuclear agreement

“Even though there is a great deal of restiveness in Iran, I don’t see any credible signs of a threat to the regime from within,” said Fawaz Gerges, a Middle East analyst at the London School of Economics. “The regime seems to have weathered the storm over the 2009 election.”

Many Iranians see the nuclear issue in nationalistic terms, he said.

“Most Iranians think that Iran has the natural right to pursue its nuclear program,” Mr. Gerges added. “And this is why we aren’t seeing many Iranians rising up and blaming their own government for their suffering and pain.”

Atash, a wealthy businessman in Tehran, echoed that sentiment.

“We have a big problem with Western governments,” he said. “They think we want a nuclear bomb. But why would we want one? We want nuclear energy, yes. For sure. But nuclear weapons? What for? Only a crazy person would want one.”

But Iran analyst Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment suggested that while a popular uprising seems remote, recent history has proved that the prediction game is a risky business.

“High oil prices allow the regime to suppress and in some cases co-opt widespread economic, political and social discontent,” he said. “But the year 2011 reminded us of our inability to predict how people react to sustained periods of economic hardship and political disenfranchisement.”

In guarded conversations, some Iranians were willing to acknowledge that they are angry with their leaders over the situation.

“Things are becoming really bad everything is really, really expensive,” musician Farid said at a quiet park popular among Tehran’s intellectuals and students. “And, you know, I’m not sure how much more people can take.”