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Despite shortages and high prices, Iran economy thrives

Western businessmen and diplomats in Tehran say the Iranian economy is back on track. Indeed, trade between Iran and industrialized countries is booming. ''During the last six months we doubled our exports to Iran,'' says an official at the Belgian Foreign Ministry. West Germany, Japan, Turkey, and Britain are now Iran's top four trading partners.

''With the economy picking up, and the French and the Americans out of the game, we're making big money here,'' a West German businessman says.

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''They are interested in equipment goods and always pay without delay,'' his colleague adds.

After the difficult months that followed the outbreak of the war with Iraq in September 1980, the Iranians have rebuilt their foreign currency reserves up to their level before the revolution. The government exports 2.7 million barrels of oil a day and is eager to regain the confidence of the international business community. It refrains from borrowing abroad and takes pride in leaving no loan in default. Last August, Iran's Central Bank reimbursed $419.5 million to the American Export-Import Bank.

''At the beginning,'' says a German businessman, ''it was difficult to get them to understand the difference between selling rugs in a bazaar and doing international trade. But they learned very quickly.''

''New intellectuals are joining the regime,'' explains a diplomat. ''They don't always support Islamic ideology, they just adopt the look: no shaved face and no tie.''

The Islamic associations that in the past acted as counterpowers in the factories have seen their influence decrease. Many Iranian businessmen who had gone into exile after the revolution have now returned home.

''When I heard in Los Angeles that they couldn't manage my company, I flew to Tehran,'' explained one Iranian. ''They didn't ask me any questions. Now my plant is back at full capacity.''

Government officials repeat relentlessly that they want to make the Iranian economy less dependent on foreign companies. They want, for example, to reorganize their automotive industry by reducing the number of makes and models they produce.

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Auto companies that belonged to foreign investors and the imperial family are now state-owned. The government is making new investments to increase production of industrial vehicles rather than passenger cars. The Mercedes plant in Tehran, for example, is said to produce more trucks and buses than before the 1979 revolution.

The economic boom has not yet brought significant changes in everyday life in Tehran, which remains marred by shortages and high prices.

During the last years of the imperial regime Iran imported 80 to 90 percent of its consumption of cereals. Opponents of the Islamic regime say this agricultural deficit is getting worse. But supporters of the regime contend the situation is improving.

''We are exporting fruits and vegetables to the Persian Gulf countries,'' says an agronomist, who concedes there are still wheat and rice shortages.

While he was still minister of commerce last spring, Habibollah Asgar-Oladi hoped that the rise in Iranian rice production, combined with well-planned imports, would bring a surplus. He ordered state trade agencies to withdraw from the rice business and to return it to private importers and dealers. Rice would be available at market prices without food coupons, he said.

But probably because of a lack of confidence in the economy, consumers rushed to the stores, wholesalers started stockpiling, and rice prices sky-rocketed. This led to demonstrations against the Cabinet. Mr. Asgar-Oladi was forced to resign.

Rice trade is now back under tight government control. Rice growers must sell their crops to state agencies that distribute goods throughout the country at fixed prices. The Cabinet has not yet reformed the structure of agriculture, so the situation is patchy. There are areas where peasants, with the backing of local authorities, have taken over lands previously owned by feudal overlords. In other places the feudal owners' power has been reinforced. But throughout the country lands belonging to former officials of the imperial regime have been distributed to peasants or revolutionary foundations.

Investment in rural areas is the Cabinet's top priority. Diplomats who have traveled outside Tehran report intense activity: Little brick houses are being built in villages and along the main roads. New drinking water taps, telephone booths, and electricity lines can be seen everywhere.

''I'm planning to return to Neyshabur, my native town,'' says a servant working in Tehran. ''My brother told me he found bricks and cement there and built his own house.''

''These are the achievements of the Reconstruction Crusade,'' says an official. The crusade is a volunteer non-governmental organization. It gets a yearly grant from the government and helps farmers improve their standard of living. Members say 500 of their colleagues have been murdered so far. Crops in newly cultivated areas are often set on fire by opponents, they add.

''We are a noncombat organization,'' says an engineer, ''but we want to change the structures of the rural society. This is why we are the target of counterrevolutionaries.''

Reorganization of existing factories and investment in previously deprived areas is the cornerstone of the economy's new growth. But observers in Tehran disagree on the long-term prospects.

Some say the growth is only a limited recovery following five years of total collapse. They doubt the Iranian government will be able to lay the basis for rapid development of rural areas.

Others say the Iranian economy had been overheated during the last years of the imperial regime and needed to be cooled off. They say the present government's limited ambitions should bring new growth to the economy.

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