- - Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A common phrase Iranians use when discussing their country is “before the revolution” — followed by some comparison, depending on their political bent, on conditions in the country before and after the 1979 uprising that overthrew the shah and installed an Islamist regime.

Iranians are varied. Ask an Iranian his opinion of the former shah, and the response will range from holy condemnation to virtual deification. But Iranians apparently agree on one thing: Everything is awful.

Indeed, a phrase that is becoming equally common is “before Ahmadinejad,” referring to the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For the beleaguered president, who came to office through a surprise election victory in 2005, the comparison between past and present is rarely positive.

“People used to complain when [Mohammad] Khatami was in charge. About how expensive everything was, about how little freedom we had as young people. We had no idea how lucky we were,” said a 29-year-old Iranian who asked to be identified only as Reza.

Iranians acknowledge their penchant for complaining, but today their complaints are justified.

A currency crisis, brought about by the tightening of the U.S. and EU-led sanctions, has meant that people’s savings are now worth less than half of what they were this time last year.

In October, oil exports fell to their lowest levels since 1988. Consequently, the government’s Budget Commission announced that the regime received only half of its projected revenue in the first six months of the Iranian calendar — from March to September last year.

Government statistics show that inflation is running at an annual rate of 27 percent, but most Iranians think it is much higher. Some governmental and clerical figures have referred to a rate of 40 percent.

Hossein Raghfar, an economist and a former presidential adviser, suspects that the real inflation rate is more than 100 percent.

The costs of many imported products, such as coffee, has doubled over the past few months. The prices of beef and chicken spiked even before the latest round of sanctions.

This time last year, it was rare to hear the word “tahrim,” or sanctions, on the streets of Iranian cities. Now you are likely to hear it every day — along with the latest anecdotes of the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Iranian rial.

The rial recently dropped to around 33,000 to the dollar, close to the all-time low of 40,000 it reached in October. At the end of 2011, it was estimated that the Iranian government had about $80 billion in foreign currency reserves.

On Dec. 7, Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani, thought to be one of the most influential figures in the regime, revealed that the reserve had dropped to $40 billion — presumably because of the loss of oil revenue and the injection of reserves into the market to save the rial from falling further.

Street crime, once rare in the Iranian capital Tehran, has risen sharply over the past few years. One popular crime is for thieves to pose as taxi drivers and rob their passengers at knife-point.

From around 10:30 on most nights, on the major boulevard nearest to my apartment, young women can be seen openly soliciting sex. To the uninitiated, they are simply well-dressed girls waiting to be picked up by friends.

But there is a specific, subtle dress code — and if you watch long enough, you will see them negotiating with men through their car windows. Again, I am told that this was unheard of five or six years ago.

It is difficult to find anyone in this city who will speak positively about their government, or even their society at large.

Almost every person younger than 35 whom I have met plans to move abroad. Some plans are more concrete, while others are just pipe dreams. This year alone, I have known several Iranians who have left their country out of despair.

Next to the feeling of despair is a sense of powerlessness to effect any change, as the turnout for last year’s parliamentary elections indicated.

The government announced a 64.5 percent voter turnout nationwide, remarkably close to the 65 percent prediction by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In May, Mohammed Maleki, the first post-revolution chancellor of Iran’s respected University of Tehran, wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei to warn of the social crisis in Iran. He waited months for a response from a man he has known since before the revolution and finally released his letter to the public in December.

Mr. Maleki urged Ayatollah Khamenei “to accept that Iran is at the verge of collapse” and recognize, among other things, the catastrophic effects of the sanctions and the dissatisfaction of the population.

Within days, the 78-year-old academic was thrown into Iran’s notorious Evin Prison to serve six years for his apparent act of defiance.

• Brendan Daly is a pseudonym to protect the reporter from Iranian government reprisals.