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The Rise Of The Internet-Based Economy Shows What's Changed In Iran

May 17, 2017
Originally published on May 17, 2017 3:20 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Iran decides this week if it wants to change course. The president there is up for re-election. Hasan Rouhani is not the top official in a government dominated by clerics. He is the man, though, who won a surprise victory in 2013 and cut a nuclear deal with the West. Our co-host Steve Inskeep is in Tehran asking how much Rouhani has changed the country at this point.

Hi, Steve.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Hey there, Rachel. Wish you were here.

MARTIN: Yeah, likewise. Lots of change happening in Iran, and it's not so easy to measure change. So how are you figuring it out?

INSKEEP: Well, it's not a fully free society, but you can read little signs, which we have seen from the moment the plane touched down the other day. It was the middle of the night. We had American cell phones in our hands, which have never worked in past years in Iran. But this time, here's the experience I had with our producer Kevin Leahy.

And we've got service.

KEVIN LEAHY, BYLINE: It says AT&T.

INSKEEP: It's AT&T. And here's a note from our driver, who's waiting for us outside the airport.

Got to tell you, Rachel - this one little thing makes a country seem a lot less forbidding. And it turned out to be symbolic because Iran's president has been trying to open up the information economy a little bit.

MARTIN: Open up the information economy. So that seems to get at a contradiction because more internet can mean more business and more income. At the same time, it also means more freedom of expression and less control by the government. No?

INSKEEP: And the governing establishment here - you know, the clerics and the ayatollah who hold supreme power - would like more of the one thing without so much of the other. And that's the tension we felt as we drove around Tehran. You look up, and this city seems timeless, by the way. You see snow-covered mountains at the ends of the streets. And then you look down, and everything seems to be churning, changing, like the internet startup business run by Tabassom Latifi.

Whose idea was this?

TABASSOM LATIFI: Me.

INSKEEP: She's 31 years old. She's a college graduate. And this was her idea, getting housewives to cook lunch for people at work.

LATIFI: We are actually connecting two groups of people to each other. The first group are housewives who are very good at cooking. They like it. They like to contribute to their family economy. And also, they wanted to expose their art, you know, to others.

MARTIN: Their art.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: That's one group. And the other group that she wants to connect is people at work who wish, well, Mom still made their lunch. And now they can order it on a website. The company is called Mamanpaz. Maman means mom. And we met some moms who cook in their homes, one of whom, by the way, made a Persian dish called bagala polo, which is beans and rice and chicken, enough to load up two dozen lunch containers.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: Business is growing even though it does depend on the internet, which is a little different in Iran. For example, if you want to spread word about your products on social media, you have to pick channels that the government doesn't block.

LATIFI: It's very important for us.

INSKEEP: So Instagram is ok. Telegram is OK. Facebook is...

LATIFI: Facebook is not OK.

INSKEEP: And Twitter...

LATIFI: Twitter is not OK too.

INSKEEP: Internet restrictions have not really ended under President Rouhani, although the government is trying to encourage tech firms like this. Latifi says young people in what are called knowledge jobs, like at internet companies, have a chance to be excused from military service.

Do you think the country is moving in the right direction?

LATIFI: Yes but slowly, very slowly. It's also dependent on the next election (laughter) - of course.

MARTIN: The next election, which is happening this Friday, right? So how are Rouhani's prospects looking?

INSKEEP: Well, he's favored over some more conservative opponents. But as we visited these Mamanpaz cooks, we got a sense of the pressures on the president because the next woman we'll meet is Manijeh Farajbakht. She led us into a lovely living room with hardwood chairs and knickknacks on the wall.

How did you hear about Mamanpaz?

LATIFI: (Speaking Farsi).

MANIJEH FARAJBAKHT: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: And listen to her story. She said she was looking for a job for her husband who's retired. Inflation in Iran eroded their retirement savings, and he needed to work again. And she ended up discovering a job for herself at Mamanpaz. For a while, she made dozens of lunches per day, cooking on a stove on her roof, which of course we had to see.

Lovely morning to be on the roof.

But the stove was not in use. The cook told us she's not making enough money. The ingredients keep costing more, and she stopped cooking, Rachel, until she gets a raise, which is symbolic here because a lot of middle-class people are struggling to make ends meet. And many of them are frustrated, even though President Rouhani did the nuclear deal and got some sanctions lifted on this country. So you end up with Rouhani supporters, like Manijeh's husband, Abbas Ghaemi, who - well, just listen to his answer when I asked if he likes Rouhani.

Rouhani, doost dari?

ABBAS GHAEMI: (Through interpreter) His ideas are better. He's better than the others actually.

INSKEEP: OK. Will you vote for him then?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Farsi).

GHAEMI: (Through interpreter) I think.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yes.

INSKEEP: You think.

MARTIN: So Steve, clearly, there's less enthusiasm for Rouhani than there was years ago - when he was elected four years ago. Is it really fair, though, to say Rouhani hasn't done much about the Iranian economy?

INSKEEP: Well, he has done something about the internet economy. His government has supported a lot more 3G and 4G service, high-speed cellphone service, which has increased the space for commerce and also, by the way, the space for political debate online.

MARTIN: So taken as a whole, what does this internet economy say about the re-election prospects of Iran's president?

INSKEEP: You know, can I answer that by taking you for a ride on Iran's version of Uber, Rachel...

MARTIN: By all means, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...You know, the ride-sharing service where you summon a car with your smartphone, which we did. And our driver pulled up. We got in and talked on the way to the destination. He's a student, and he's 20 years old.

How does it affect you to spend six or seven hours a day in Tehran traffic?

KOUROSH QADIRI: (Through interpreter) I try not to really get into traffic jam...

INSKEEP: Although...

QADIRI: ...Or really crowded.

INSKEEP: ...We're in one now actually.

To be clear, Rachel, you're pretty much always in a traffic jam in Tehran, and we were in one with Kourosh Qadiri, the driver, who seems to fall into President Rouhani's target demographic. He's a student. He's in the internet economy. He's going to be voting in his first presidential election, but he's not voting for President Rouhani - doesn't like the nuclear deal and believes Iran's supreme leader would like him to vote for a more conservative candidate. This is not a fully free or transparent election, but it is a moment for Iran to choose.

MARTIN: Our MORNING EDITION co-host Steve Inskeep - he is reporting from Iran all this week. National elections there will take place this Friday. Hey, Steve, thanks so much. We'll talk to you again.

INSKEEP: OK, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.