Traders and customers in Iran find a way around UN sanctions as deadline for nuclear agreement draws closer - Middle East - World - The Independent

Traders and customers in Iran find a way around UN sanctions as deadline for nuclear agreement draws closer - Middle East - World - The Independent... 02/11/2014 Economy

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Rob Hastings Author Biography Sunday 02 November 2014
Staring down from a roadside billboard in the heart of Tehran, the image of Cristiano Ronaldo dressed as a space-age footballer to market a smartphone is one of the more unlikely sights of the Iranian capital.
In a nation where UN sanctions have strangled the economy for years, by severely restricting international banking and trade because of the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, high-tech goods advertised by Western celebrities are among the products seemingly most likely to be in short supply.
In fact, the city is awash with adverts for Samsung and LG on every street, some even trying to entice consumers to buy 65-inch ultra-HD curved televisions; and it appears that almost every member of Iran's middle class owns one of the two companies' touchscreen mobile phones.
One young engineer in Shiraz tells me he is not too worried by sanctions, tightened still further by the US and EU since 2011, as they affect "finance and oil companies" rather than him.
But while people can buy international brands, their cost is high to locals whose wealth has been hurt by high inflation, and whose currency has plummeted in value on the exchange markets.
The sanctions are not only intended to prevent Iran gaining the technology to develop its nuclear programme and punish the government members whose assets are frozen, but also to create internal pressure within the population for their leaders to strike a deal on the nuclear issue.
Javed, a rug salesman with an upmarket boutique in Esfahan, is one of those frustrated by the diplomatic stand-off. The restrictions mean international debit or credit cards such as Visa or Mastercard do not work in Iran, so tourists can only use cash.
Javed is lucky that he is one of the very few shopkeepers to have a business overseas in Dubai, meaning he can take card payments online, but the cost and inconvenience frustrates him.
The carpet seller is currently listening out for developments on the local media every day about the ongoing nuclear talks, which he hopes will result in sanctions being lessened. "For 10 years, things have been hard," he says. "I'm hoping for good news."
Tourism worker Reza agrees. "We want to start again, to welcome people and business to Iran and open our doors. We have spent too long shut out from the rest of the world."
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will meet Iran's foreign minister and the European Union foreign policy chief in Oman on 9 and 10 November to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue ahead of a looming deadline for a final agreement, the US State Department said on Friday.
Mr Kerry's talks in Muscat, Oman with the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the EU's outgoing High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, Baroness Catherine Ashton, are due to take place two weeks before a 24 November deadline for Tehran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany to reach a long-term agreement on Iran's nuclear programme. A number of meetings will also be held in Vienna.
Problems for the people are also obvious on the roads of Ahvaz. Not far from the border with Iraq, the city is the centre of the country's oil industry – but refining that oil is a problem. Many petrol stations are often closed as they have run out of fuel, or have queues lining up outside due to shortages elsewhere.
Those who can avoid the worst of the sanctions are often helped by connections across the Persian Gulf. "Iran is one of the countries where internet usage is most widespread, but in theory none of the software nor most of the hardware that Iranians use for this should have been possible to import," says Dr Michael Axworthy, director of the Centre for Persian and Iranian Studies at Exeter University.
"A large part of it comes through Dubai, and the economy of Dubai relies very substantially on sanctions-busting trade with Iran. Yet it's part of the United Arab Emirates, one of the Middle Eastern states that has the most hostile stance towards Iran."
For the working class, the situation is more acute. "People can't afford to eat meat, they can't afford rice, they can't pay their rent – it's been very tough. But... they have experience of greater hardship, and they know how to find ways around it to continue living in ways that people in the West would find absolutely impossible. Many lived through the Iran-Iraq war when... they had worse things to worry about than the price of food."
But with hopes raised among the people that a deal is possible – to the extent that some were tempted to think direct flights to New York might even be established – the risk for the Iranian government is that any faltering in the nuclear negotiations, and the realisation that the hardest sanctions are here to stay, could prove too much for many Iranians to contemplate.
The names of Javed and Reza have been changed

---Staring down from a roadside billboard in the heart of Tehran, the image of Cristiano Ronaldo dressed as a space-age footballer to market a smartphone is one of the more unlikely sights of the Iranian capital.---

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