Davood Taraji stands by the refrigerator, listing the price rises that have slowly emptied his otherwise swanky, double-doored appliance over the past weeks.
“The price of an egg has doubled, and milk is about 40% more expensive,” he says, putting a half-empty bottle back into the chill. “Fruit and vegetables have gone up 100%.”
This is the everyday world of a Tehran taxi driver, caught up in the onslaught of the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran and the country’s economic slide.
Taraji has been particularly hard-hit as he drives a foreign car, a Toyota, and spare parts for these are under renewed American sanctions that kicked in a week earlier. This means mending the family business is now impossible to afford. The local currency has dropped to a third of its value in 2017, and their plush, yet tiny, two-room apartment feels it hard.
“It’s caused us to work longer days to make ends meet,” he says. Their home may soon be up for sale if these hardships continue. But he worries most about the education of his children, Artin, 7, who dutifully recites from his English textbook, and Asal, 13, who plays a gentle Siciliana riff on her acoustic guitar.
It is a stark reversal in the US’s policy toward ordinary Iranians. Taraji was the kind of middle-class, outward-looking family man that the Obama administration felt might encourage moderation in Iran, were the economy to benefit from the lifting of western sanctions. That was the logic behind the nuclear deal signed in 2015, under which the US, several European countries, Russia and China agreed to lift an effective economic blockade in exchange for Iran submitting to checks on its nuclear facilities.
The agreement brought a string of billion dollar deals with Western firms for airplanes and oil exploration in Iran. But the benefits were largely stymied by a fall in global oil prices and the election of Donald Trump, which introduced uncertainty for investors. For the average Iranian, the results have been lackluster, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been criticized for making concessions that extracted little in return.
Earlier this year, Trump pulled out of the deal against the advice of his closest European allies, setting in motion events that led to the reimposition of sanctions earlier this month. His administration believes that renewed economic pressure will turn ordinary Iranians against their leaders.
While economic hardships have led to sporadic protests across Iran over the past eight months, it is far from clear that this new US approach is undermining Rouhani’s comparatively moderate administration. In fact, many Iranians we spoke to – with a government-appointed translator sometimes present – said they blame Trump for Iran’s turmoil, rather than their own officials.
This week, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei indicated – in a rare admission of error – that it was a mistake to permit his diplomats to negotiate the nuclear deal in the first place, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency. It is unclear if this was a bid to distance himself from a policy closely associated with Rouhani, or to draw a line under the affair as sanctions begin to bite and Iran looks elsewhere for economic assistance. Khamenei also stated that neither war nor talks with the US were an option.
We met Taraji at an unusual frontline for this geopolitical tussle: a Toyota repair shop in eastern Tehran. He is peering into his stricken taxi, covered in dust, its side panels missing, and its rear window sporting “plz wash me” graffiti in the dust.
The car was bought as a money-making machine, but now the income from passengers and tourists he used to collect from the airport has dried up. The spare parts to fix the Toyota are either unavailable or unaffordable, but the repayments on the car haven’t gone away.
The Toyota sits in a yard that should mostly be deserted as repaired cars are taken away by their owners. But instead, the lot is clogged. Out back, owner Nabiullah Sardashtani, 65, shows us why. Shelves in the spare-parts room, normally piled high with replacement sparkplugs, are instead mostly empty. He says they will be barren in less than a few months. It’s oddly also quite an expensive haul now – those remaining foreign auto spares in Iran have tripled in value.
As a light bulb eerily blinks above Sardshtani, I ask whether this discomfort makes Iranians like him feel that they should rise up against the government.
“No,” he says bluntly. “Because the hungrier the people get, the more they are going to hate Trump. If he acted properly, people might have loved him. America is punishing the people of Iran. A mechanic who used to work on four or five cars a day can now only work on one car because there are no parts. So they are making less money.”
He explains that around a hundred people depend upon his repair shop: he has 20 staff, each with a family of about five.
“But look around,” he said. “Business is at a standstill.”
Worse is yet to come when US sanctions against the oil industry, which is behind about a fifth of Iran’s gross domestic product, kick in during early November. The question is whether the blunt instruments employed by the Trump administration change the political calculus in Iranian heads at all.