Iran's President Sets Out to Ease Unemployment
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Iran today lashed out against a resolution by the UN nuclear monitoring agency that could lead to Security Council sanctions against Iran. It called the resolution illegal and illogical and accused the United States of orchestrating the measure. The Tehran government is also threatening to ban international inspectors from its nuclear facilities. This latest controversy over Iran's nuclear program comes four months after Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, swept into office by voters unhappy with a lack of jobs and a weak economy. Vermont Public Radio's Steve Zind recently visited Iran, and he filed this report.
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STEVE ZIND reporting:
The house of employment for women is located on the second floor of a city-owned building in a poor south Tehran neighborhood. Here at Iran's first women's cooperative, widowed, single and divorced women learn skills they hope will lift them out of poverty. The women who work here have little formal education. On this warm day, the rattle of Tehran's chaotic traffic comes in through the open window of a small room crowded with sewing machines. The women make hospital gowns and the ubiquitous orange jump suits worn by Tehran's street sweepers. Each woman will take home about $4 for a day's work.
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ZIND: When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's name is mentioned, the women begin talking enthusiastically about Iran's new president. One woman says she voted for Ahmadinejad because he promised a better future for her children.
Unidentified Woman #4: (Through Translator) We have this expectation from Ahmadinejad to eliminate unemployment for our young people, because unemployment brings a lot of problems. It brings drug addiction; it brings psychological and mental problems.
ZIND: Officially Iran's unemployment rate is about 15 percent, although the actual rate is thought to be much higher. It's estimated that close to half the nation lives at or below the poverty level. These are the people who form the core of Ahmadinejad's support, energized by his vow to end government corruption and improve their lives. Keeping those promises won't be easy. University of Tehran Professor Abu Muhammed Oscargoni(ph) is an adviser to the new president. Oscargoni says it's likely Ahmadinejad will increase state subsidies on many items in order to bring down prices.
Professor ABU MUHAMMED OSCARGONI (University of Tehran): Without state intervention, the poor cannot benefit. My personal prediction is that there will be some kind of socialist approach to economics.
ZIND: Oscargoni says high oil prices will provide Ahmadinejad with the windfall he needs to help Iran's poor, but Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, says expanding government programs will be an added burden to Iran's already struggling economy.
Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): He might be able to actually, under the banner of economic justice, further expand Iran's bloated bureaucracy, further expand Iran's social and economic subsidies, which are a drain on those resources, and actually obstruct a sort of economic privatization program that calls for lessening of the role of government.
ZIND: Takeyh says any attempt at real economic reform will run head-on into powerful conservative elements in Iran. Well over half of the nation's economy is controlled by the government and by huge foundations called bonyads, run by clerics. Oscargoni, the presidential adviser, is also pessimistic about the prospects for economic reform.
Prof. OSCARGONI: There are many blocs of power inside Iran. They have monopolized everything. So he cannot succeed on that.
ZIND: It's still unclear what Ahmadinejad will do to improve the economy. Ali Mazrai(ph) is a reformist journalist who writes about economic issues. Mazrai says the man who described himself as the humble street sweeper of the Iranian people didn't offer specifics during his campaign.
Mr. ALI MAZRAI (Reformist Journalist): And it still--until now, we don't know what this program is for the economy. I don't understand what they want to do.
ZIND: Mazrai says he's concerned that tensions over Iran's nuclear program will hurt the economy by stifling trade and outside investment.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Zind.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.