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Tehran a paradox of rich and poor

The shops are full of Western pop music and movies — the latest Harry Potter film, even "The Simpsons." Young women stroll the streets in skinny jeans and short coats, their heads barely covered, arm-in-arm with boys in muscle shirts and spiky hair.
Iranian women with Islamic veils walk past mannequins in an open market in Tehran on Sept. 16.
Iranian women with Islamic veils walk past mannequins in an open market in Tehran on Sept. 16.Hasan Sarbakhshian / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The shops are full of Western pop music and movies — the latest Harry Potter film, even "The Simpsons." Young women stroll the streets in skinny jeans and short coats, their heads barely covered, arm-in-arm with boys in muscle shirts and spiky hair.

This is affluent north Tehran, where clerics are rare, lifestyles are relatively liberal and Iran's growing isolation from the world is a source of deep anxiety.

Not far to the south, though, in a dilapidated bureaucratic building near the city's government center, and farther to the south in Tehran's sprawling poorer neighborhoods, things are different.

Near downtown, as a hard-line official talks about his dislike of the West and the continued power of the Islamic revolution, the call to prayer echoes through an open window. On a nearby wall, a map showing Iran's closest ally Syria and its top enemy Israel hangs prominently.

It is the paradox of Tehran today — a city and people surprisingly cosmopolitan and far different from Western stereotypes, paired with an ultraconservative government working to consolidate its power and at sharp odds with the West.

Yet, whether modern or strictly traditional, many Iranians share one thing: A strong national pride and desire for respect from the outside world, sharpened by their sense of being under siege.

"The world does not understand us," said Shahryar Eivazzadeh, in his early 30s, who works at a software company in north Tehran. Many young people may dislike the current government but they shudder at the thought of attack by the West, he said.

"Not everything is so bad here," he said of the criticism Iran faces. "It's not that simple."

Surrounded by unfriendly neighbors
In part, the strong nationalism stems from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and the vivid, frequent references to it across state media. TV images of weeping mothers, exhausted and heroic soldiers and martyred civilians are a stark reminder of how Iran suffered the last time it was invaded.

During key times, such as the recent anniversary of the war's start, hard-liners may deliberately use such images to shore up their influence. But even educated middle-class Iranians say their country sits in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by Arab countries that are not friendly, and that Iran needs ways to defend itself.

Such shared national sentiment aside, much of Tehran feels split.

Hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won many votes in the conservative, poorer southern neighborhoods of Tehran, where people responded to his populist call for sharing the country's oil wealth.

Little of that sharing has happened, however, and even former Ahmadinejad supporters in parliament and the media have raised complaints about his economic performance.

In the city's more upscale and modern north, the criticism is much sharper: Some shake their heads in disgust when the president's name comes up.

In one office building the morning after Ahmadinejad's recent speech at Columbia University, a middle-aged employee laughed ruefully and told a friend, "It's better not to know" what Ahmadinejad had said. "We don't deserve such a guy," he said, asking that his name not be used. The hardest-line newspapers, however, were full of praise.

The same divisions play out on the streets.

Even before the 1979 Islamic revolution and during the period immediately after, Tehran's northern neighborhoods, especially the affluent suburbs stretching up into the foothills that ring the city, were a more Westernized bastion, where women often dressed in Western clothes, supporters of the shah's regime lived in villas and even some fast-food restaurants flourished.

The south was home to the poorer and more conservative, many of them economic migrants from Iran's provinces who came to find work and crowded into small apartments, sometimes in neighborhoods with no working sewage systems.

Center of revolution
The bulk of protests and street fighting surrounding the revolution occurred in the city's center, especially around Tehran University and the long boulevard now called Vali Asr, but supporters of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini recruited many of their "foot soldiers" from Tehran's southern neighborhoods. And Khomeini, on his return to the country from exile, based his headquarters there.

Over the years, and particularly after reformist President Mohammad Khatami came to power in the late 1990s, personal freedoms again exploded in the city's north as women began dressing more liberally and modern shops sprang up.

Even after the reform movement stalled and Ahmadinejad was elected in late 2005, the northern neighborhoods have remained something of a haven for the more liberal and well-off _ with modern freeways, new and often graceful high-rise apartment buildings and green parks.

Nevertheless, the Ahmadinejad era has brought changes: Officials have cracked down on private freedoms in recent months, including stopping women on the streets for not properly covering their heads.

Yet in northern neighborhoods, young men still throng to hip hair salons at indoor shopping centers, the stylists and their customers on full display to passing young women, through plate-glass windows. Underground rock bands draw fans, and pre-Revolutionary music plays from car stereos.

In Tehran's sprawling metropolitan area of 9 million, an estimated 60 percent of the population is younger than 25, and thus born sometime after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

At outdoor cafes in the northern foothills, families talk about the hassles of heavy traffic and gasoline rationing and their fears of being priced out of the city's inflationary housing market. They swap sarcastic quips about the president, apparently unconcerned if someone overhears.

Sharp contrast just miles away
They also express some gloom about the future: Tips for obtaining a bank account in nearby Dubai are traded intently, at a time when U.S. government pressure on European and Asian banks to stop transactions with Iran has dried up access to the outside world economy.

Only miles to the south, however, many women still wear the long, enveloping black chador as they go out to shop or take children to school. Pictures of Khomeini and the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, stare down from murals on many streets.

And hard-line figures like Hossein Shariatmadari, close to Khamenei, cast Iran's differences with the United States as an unending ideological struggle between their Islamic theocracy and a plundering, arrogant America.

Speaking in his office near the city's government center, the map of Syria and Israel on a wall nearby, Shariatmadari said Iran is strong enough to resist whatever the United States might throw its way.

Even if Iran curbed its nuclear program, the United States would merely come after Iran for something else, he said. The point is moot anyway, he said, because Iran will never give up the nuclear program.

"We simply want to control our own resources, run our own affairs," he said. "The mistake that the U.S. administration makes is to threaten Iran ... They don't understand the Iranian nation."