Thursday, May 04, 2006

May 1 – Tehran Time Machine

Flying from ultramodern Dubai to Tehran is like flying in a time machine—backwards. The city of 12 million reminded me of Istanbul in the 1960s when I had been an exchange student there (but is now a much more modern place). Tehran seems to have stopped the clock with the revolution and rejection of Western ways and global connections.

Reza and I had rooms in the former Tehran Grand Hyatt, now the Azadi Grand, and it is a museum of 1970s decor. It has the same wallpaper, furnishings, fixtures it had then—and this is the best hotel in the city. The Azadi Grand is owned by a foundation that has state control and support. This is how much of business activity in Iran is organized. About 80 percent of GDP is directly or indirectly state controlled.

No one seems to think that this control is ideological—as under socialism—but its rather a matter of politics and political control. The city is very much alive with traffic and crowds of shoppers, but the goods are largely local. Even cars with European names are shipped as kits and assembled in Iran. The food is local and wonderful. There are beautiful mounds of fava beans and fruits, of fresh fish and flat breads nicely displayed.

Iran has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas and fifth largest of crude oil, but the money is not showing up obviously in the streets of the capital. The kinds of infrastructure one would expect with oil wealth are not being spent on public goods. The contrast with Dubai is striking.


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