Mention Tehran to many people and their minds begin whirring with stock newsreel footage of chadors, ayatollahs and chanting hordes. During my recent visit however, I found a rapidly modernising city with much to recommend it. While Tehran faces all the usual struggles of a developing metropolis, expat assignees are likely to find themselves enjoying a higher quality of life there than they might perhaps have expected.
However, initial impressions may not be very positive. Tehran is a vast city of eight million people and five million vehicles, with a road network several times over capacity. Sanctions on petroleum imports have led to domestic refinement of low-grade fuel dangerously high in benzene. The result: a daily gridlock of ageing engines spewing toxic fumes. Arriving in spring, I was lucky to experience Tehran at its best. Despite the heavy traffic, the air was fresh and clear. Each winter, however, a haze rolls over the city, stinging eyes and throats and causing high rates of respiratory and cardiac disease.
Air pollution isn’t the only danger associated with Tehran’s roads. Iran has one of the highest rates of traffic accidents in the world and barely halfway from the airport to my hotel, I saw the first grisly reminder of this: vehicles had slowed to a crawl to pass around two youths lying dead next to their crushed motorcycle.
A hundred metres further along the highway, a roadside painting depicted several teenage soldiers standing in a field of red tulips. These were young victims of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s – just a few of the million who died in a grinding war of attrition. I was struck by how their impassive faces looked eerily similar to those I had just passed on the road. Martyrdom is of fundamental importance in Shi’a Islam, the dominant religion in Iran, and newcomers to Tehran will immediately notice the memorial portraits lining the city’s roadways. These greatly outnumber the anti-USA murals more often shown in western media.
Despite my bleak introduction to the city, the urban environment of Tehran was pleasant to experience. Even in the working-class sprawl of the southern suburbs, the bare walls of apartment buildings had been beautified. Murals of balloons, doves and surreal optical illusion effects were a welcome improvement on blank concrete. Billboards across the city showcased works by local and international artists. There are numerous, large and carefully maintained parks and gardens, particularly in the northern neighbourhoods popular with expats and well-to-do locals. Water channels flow alongside the many tree-lined boulevards, carrying snowmelt from the scenic Alborz mountains above the northern suburbs. There’s also a clean and efficient metro system which covers much of the city. Iran may be a Gulf state, but its capital feels far closer to Europe or the Caucasus both geographically and culturally.
After getting my bearings I set out to begin researching the cost of goods and services. The first stop on my data collection itinerary was the huge and very crowded Hyperstar supermarket. This seemed reassuringly familiar, with its Carrefour-style branding and layout. Unusually, however, the shelf price labels were in Farsi numerals. I had learned the local script in advance but it still took a lot of effort to mentally translate hundreds of prices into English in that store alone. It didn’t help that most prices were at least six digits long, due to the Iranian Riyal being one of the world’s least valuable currencies. (Central Bank initiatives to remove most of the zeroes haven’t yet come to fruition.)
The next day I scouted around for other suitable outlets from which to gather data. I had read about a wave of mall-building across the capital, as property developers tried to hedge against inflation and currency shocks. However, the malls I visited were rather disappointing. The recently built MegaMall development was large but still very empty inside. Others like the Kouroush Complex were busy shopping venues but contained very few international branded goods. For the present, there doesn’t seem to be any one-stop shopping mall in which an expat can conveniently fulfil all of their material needs.
Travelling around the city, I was confused to spot some familiar restaurant chains doing business despite the tight international sanctions. On closer inspection I realised that most of these outlets – Nando’s, Five Guys and KFC, for instance – were carefully designed imitations! Cloned restaurants are able to operate in Iran as the country’s intellectual property laws aren’t yet aligned with international conventions. Nevertheless, while ersatz Zinger burgers may keep the local kids happy, without the Colonel’s secret recipe they won’t impress many expats!
It’s much easier to find authentic clothing than fast food, however. An increasing number of international outlets such as Debenhams, Mango and Benetton now have a local presence in Tehran. In addition, there are many ‘counterfeit’ stores which nevertheless offer wide selections of genuine branded goods! Their premises and signage are almost indistinguishable from the real franchises, and their stock imported from overseas. Licensed or not, these reseller stores make it easier for expats to get their hands on trusted international brands. The same applies to electronics. In the Paytahkt Computer Center I found all the latest iPhone and iPad models – from a half dozen different so-called ‘Apple Stores.’
Conducting cost-of-living research involves comparing the prices of a basket of goods from city to city. However, the laws of the Islamic Republic mean that more than ten percent of these items are illegal. For some expats, the prohibitions on beer, bacon or even playing cards (for their connection with gambling) might cause them to view Tehran as something of a hardship posting. As a data researcher however, I have to confess that these restrictions made my workload a little easier!
Although these legal constraints are similar to those in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait, the social environment is markedly different. Locals are far less reserved, and Tehrani women are prominent in education and the workforce. Their headscarves serve as a useful barometer as to the nation’s political climate. During the conservative Ahmadinejad regime, scarves entirely covered the hair, but personal freedoms seem to have expanded under the moderate Rouhani government. I was surprised to see scarves worn loosely on the back on the head or held up only by a ponytail.
The economic climate may soon liberalise to match. A nuclear framework agreement had been achieved in Lausanne just prior to my visit, and I found the mood throughout Tehran upbeat and optimistic. Sanctions, which have long shackled trade and productivity, could be lifted within the next year. The future of a newly globalised Tehran may be even more interesting than its past.
Conor is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. He travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.