Friday, July 15, 2011

Iran and Modernity, to be or not to be?


by Amir Taheri

How is Iran dealing with modernity and technology? For a nation that loves gadgets and new things, the report card is mixed. In some fields Iran seems to be the leader in its fields and in other areas the road to modernity has a few bumps along the way. Walking around town, getting in shared taxis, or just shopping around, I see a large amount of people walking around with the latest gadgets, like the iphone 4 or the HTC and Blackberry rivals. To contrasts this, I venture to guess that many people have not activated their internet on their phones. The mobile world of walk and surf has not really caught on here yet. This while the mobile phone carriers offer very affordable deals for internet usage. I get 2 Gigs worth of surfing for only $10 a month. This is the case in Shiraz but might be different in the fast pace city of Tehran. Internet connections are still 2G but the third mobile operator will soon launch 3G exclusively for the first 2 years. Connections are also surprisingly good with towers everywhere even in the front yards of some homes that have signed up for moblie towers and don't mind the monthly royalty fee of upwards of $1,000.

The world of transportation is a heavy Work in Progress (WIP). Airlines are popping up almost monthly. This is because increased airline ticket prices are drawing in new firms that were otherwise kept out of the market earlier with below cost domestic prices. North Iran has a new comer called Ata airlines. This airline connects Tabriz with additional flights to most major cities in Iran. It's private investors are quickly adding new planes to further frequency and starting international flights. Taban Air in Mashhad has been around longer but is also expanding with the current rush, becoming recently Iran's 4th largest airline. A new regional player has begun its work out of Esfehan with Iranian produced planes, the An-140 or Iran-140 as it is referred to. They operate currently 6 planes and the small 52 person aircraft is mostly used in short stop flights. The problems for these airlines are abundant though. New plane purchases are out of the question apart from Iranian produced An-140 and possibly a future joint venture for the larger An-158. There is almost no entertainment on these flights (moslty under an hour) and on international flights there are shared screens showing an Iranian film with subtitles. The Industry is growing rapidly but is aiming only to meet the basic need of going from point A to B. Mahan Air is the only exception, being Iran's second largest airline and operating the newest, cleanest, and friendliest crews in the industry.

Tehran's metro is rapidly expanding with its Mayor dutifully attending each new station launch. It is clean, efficient, a cool escape in summer from the heat above ground, and the art underground is museum quality. What they lack is fast enough trains being built and shipped to Iran from China. Iran Khodro has taken up the task of building trains as it sees the market very plentiful with Metros operating or planned in Esfehan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Ahwaz, and Mashhad. Mahhad's metro opened earlier this year and has a second line coming online most likely next year. Shiraz might get its partly up and running this year with Tabriz set for 2012. As most of these lines are a WIP, buses and taxis fill in the gaps. Iran has a funny and eco-friendly shared taxi system. At first I found this a bit awkward and overwhelming to use but now it has become a fast and cost effective way to get around. You need to know the routes that are possible and than simply wait on any roadside until a shared taxi approaches. You hollower your destination as the taxi slows down (not fully stopping) and if it meets with his/her route then they will stop long enough for you to climb in! The taxi will continue to invite passengers until 3 sit in the back and one in the front. A large number of cars on the road are such taxis. I imagine the days of these shared taxis are near its end when metros and further buses are added to the transportation network.

Banking is surprisingly as modern as it can get. There is an overabundance of ATMs around the city. You can withdraw money from any ATM or bank without a fee even if its not your own bank. Internet banking is faster than anywhere I have seen in the world. Whereas I always waited up to 48 hours in Europe or America for funds to be transfered, in Iran using their own (Shetab system) funds are transfered instantly. This system seems to be a separate system from the internet and therefore can quickly transfer funds among any bank, retailer, or organization in Iran without having to connect to the international wiring system. You can pay bills at your bank's ATM, and most other banking tasks you might in the West.

Internet is well the internet but slower and more expansive. I pay roughly 50 dollars for unlimited 512KB connection. For those wondering back what that speed was like, well a 5 min Youtube video takes about 2-3 mins to fully load. Pages open as fast as any normal internet connection but you notice the speed when you are watching your favorite episodes online. Here where I would have needed only 2-3 mns for 45 min video to load, I now need about 15 mins of heads up load time before starting to watch a series. Before coming to Iran I had nightmares about the internet in Iran. Apart from the heavy cost, (my largest monthly cost) I can live with the speeds and using software can access Facebook. Every couple of months prices come down further and speeds get better as more competition enters the market.

Then there is just the odd ball mind bogglers that makes Iran that interesting places it is. You will see a nomadic villager walking around town with traditional cloths and talking on his mobile phone. Or see an automatic mechanical car park next to an old building (google "automatic mechanical car park" if your wondering what that is). Internet surfing and posting clerics have to be the most interesting of the them all. There are currently sites where those seeking religious guidance can log in and ask a cleric their question and expect to have a response within 48 hours. Then there are the ingenious things like retail websites that let you buy things through sites like Ebay or Amazon from Iran. One such site lets you send them a link containing any book from Amazon and they will order it and deliver to your door (Iranians are kept out of the Western credit card world). Advances in space, medicine and stem cell research, robotics, and nanotechnology will have to be discussed in another editorial.

Editor’s Note: Amir Taheri is one of the authors of Uskowi on Iran. His weekly columns appear here on Fridays.

Photo courtesy of Fars News Agency

41 comments:

Anonymous said...

Like always,its an interseting article:) good job,noodle ;)

Persicus said...

I am begining to appreciate Amir Taheri more and more.
Please do carry on.
It is illuminating to feel somebodys understanding of an enviroment despite of a collective anti Iran "Hochigari" by some un-Iranians.

Mark Pyruz said...

Perfect photo for the piece.

When after three decades my Iranian aunt returned to Iran a couple of years ago, she couldn't believe her eyes. It didn't change her political bias. But she did concede she had a splendid time.

Anonymous said...

The country has become a paradise.
Why don't you all go back?

Amir Taheri said...

Thanks Persicus, I was just waiting to see what criticism could be found from this piece. I want to say I am surprised but not really. Appreciate the comments!

Mark, I thought so too when I found the picture, but honestly it is not hard to spot such things here.

Anonymous said...

Mr Taheri
with all due respect the criticism that can be found in your articles is the rosy picture that you are painting of everything in Iran. I admit that there has been a lot of progress in sel sufficeincy in many areas since the Revolution in Iran, but this should not lead to exagerration of the scientific , industrial , political and financial might of Iran. I think you are describing a reality that belongs to the few procent of the "well of" Iranians northern Tehran and to some extent other major Iranian cities not the ordinary Iranians who are feeling the pain of inflation and economic sanctions. How many Iranian families do you know who can pay the montly 1000 Us dollars royalty that you mention in your article?

Amir Taheri said...

last anan,

I have not at all painted a rose picture. I have simply stated things as they are, factual. I both criticize and praise where it is needed. Please name one thing that I have wrongly reported on?

You have made one mistake regarding the mobile towers. The mobile companies PAY families up to $1,000 for allowing them to place a tower on their properties.

Please don't mistake the fact that I don't complain about everything in Iran and state things as they are as painting a rosy picture. This article is as factual as possible and as I have witnessed with my own eyes. I invite to you point out something that I have said that is incorrect.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Taheri, I started reading your articles right after the Iranian revolution when you were residing outside Iran. After a while I stopped reading your articles because they started reading more like propaganda than true journalism. They were always about how Iran is doing everything wrong and how cruel all the islamic system is. Your sudden pop up on Uskowi on Iran and your pro-Iran orientation is perplexing at the minimum. For the sophisticated reader you need to explain clearly and fully the causes for this major transformation. You are in danger of being dismissed again as a mouth piece, this time sponsored by some power center in Islamic Republic. There are plenty of open sources these days for one to keep abreast of developments in Iran. What we need to read about is the present nature of relationship between the people of Iran and their system of government and how they are respected or disrespected by that system. Could you write about that?

Thanks,

Cyrus

Amir Taheri said...

Last anan, you must have missed the many times that I have tried to answer this question.... I am NOT the Amir Taheri that you are referring to!!!!

I am indeed pro-Iranian and not pro-regime. As mentioned I feel that many stories are not told by the western media for obvious reason and by Iranians who live abroad that have a grudge to hold against the Iranian government.

I will continue to choose stories that are FACTUAL, and as they are either told to me in Iran or are seen with my own eyes!

Anonymous said...

Mr Amir Taheri.
Thank you for your response and my appologies for my mistake and misunderstanding about the mobile phone masts.
About everything in your articles being factual I can only mention a paragraph in your own articles about Iranian made MRI machines. You clearly state that "You have heard about this Iranian made MRI machine" Now that can not be factual but hearsay.
I do respect your right to describe things in Iran as you find them and in your own taste, but I just disagree with you on how well the current Iranian adminstration is handling the problematic issues in the country.
You mention about the brands new Mahan airplanes. They are not new and 3 747's bought a short while ago are grounded at IKIA because of technical problems. I disagree that everything you are writing about is factual.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Taheri, my apologies for mistaking you with another person. In this case you have my full support because indeed good things have happened and are happening in Iran next to horrible things of course..

Cyrus

Amir Taheri said...

Last Anan,

thanks for your reply. Regarding the MRI machine I do mention that I have heard about them, I didn't say I have seen them.

Regarding the Mahan planes, I did not say they are new, I said, "Mahan's recently purchased sparkling Airbus planes". They are sparkling because Mahan has gone through an extensive refurbishment program for its planes. I have personally flown in them and are very nice in comparison to other airlines. The 3 747 aircraft do not have technical problems but are under sanction from the US and can be seized if they fly to a foreign country. One has been activated recently and flys Tehran-Mashhad routes. I invite you to further point out what you might think is incorrect. I value the truth above all else!

Amir Taheri said...

Hi Cyrus,

Thanks for your post! I hope I can report on some interesting stories in the next months!

Anonymous said...

Iran & Modernity
--------------

maybe a better indication than who has cell phones and cell phone service in Iran is

Life expectancy at birth:


IRAN is listed in 108 th place for lomgevity

Tot71.0 Male69.4 Fem72.6

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

Anonymous said...

Amir, a very balanced and factual article as usual. Keep up the good work.

Nilou said...

Amir khan,
A very nice article indeed. Thanks for posting and keep up the great work :)

Anonymous said...

Amir jan,

I echo the sentiments expressed by Persicus in his post.

Your Friday column on Uskowi on Iran has become for me something to look forward to reading on Fridays. There is so much negative and agenda-driven news articles on Iran in the western media that it is reassuring to be able to read at least once a week an article by someone who actually lives in the country and writes on issues based on his own observations.

I hope you will revisit some of the topics that you wrote about in your current piece at a future date, as they deserve a more detailed treatment.

Tonnes of Good Luck.

Amir Taheri said...

Thanks for the kind words! Will definitely keep going with more stories that I see here :)

Anonymous said...

امیر عزیز
یه جای خیلی ها که دارن بجای پیشرفت پس رفت میکنند ...میسوزه
دست وپنچه شما در نکنه .بقول ایرانی ها حال شو ببر

reader said...

Amir
Like many other readers, I enjoy reading your weakly column in this wonderful blog, but for the sake of neutrality and objectivity I would also like you - at least on occasions - to shine your good torch on the darker side of the room. I fully appreciate that your rosy picture of the progress is largely driven by your national pride and sense of optimism in response to the negative coverage of the progress made by Iranian people despite the unjust sanction. However, a good journalist should use his/her hand to turn the lights on inside the dark room to reveal both good and bad for all to see, and not to selectively shine the torch on good corners.
For a sustainable progress, our beloved country is badly in need of social and political reforms, as it was the case for Soviet Union in 1989 and communist China today.

Amir Taheri said...

Thanks reader as always, I like to read your comments also when I am not of the same opinion ;)

Honastly, I always feel no matter how much I try to play the devils advocate, against the media and Iranians, it is not enough but I am also sometimes motivated by things I see as urgently needing attention. For example, I am debating doing a piece on the hectic driving situation in Iran and why there is not more done to correct this!

Anonymous said...

Interesting. We don't get enough actual reporting **from** Iran in the west. It's refreshing to hear from someone who is actually living there.

Anonymous said...

"How many Iranian families do you know who can pay the montly 1000 Us dollars royalty that you mention in your article?"

lol. You're criticizing the author's intellect when you don't even understand that phone companies pay you to put their transmission pole on your property?

It's funny when you look at Iranians in America who look down on Iranians in Iran. The former are too often lat o loot listening to rap music, living on welfare and foodstamps (I know so many poor Iranian immigrants who get by on this), possessing only a meager American public school education and having an arrogant belief that they are superior because they are in America.

Anonymous said...

I am not going to get involved in the right or wrong of these arguments. It is pointless and everyone has his/her views whether political, religious or otherwise.

There is one thing noone can deny that. The glittering Cilvilization and Culture that this great nation has offered to herself and the World.

When I was in Iran recently my mother asked me to have a look at and repair the old Vinyl record player. I think it was called Topaz. Anyway, I fixed it and among the old records I found my mum's favourite "Mara Beboos" by Hassan Golnaraghi. Well before my time in 1940s record. However, I could still remember it.

Later on I found a recording of it on "Your Tube". This was I could play normally through normal internet with VPN (I am not sure you can access Your Tube without VPN in Iran).

Anyway always a delight to listen to it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o650DK1-YoU&feature=related

Enjoy

Anonymous said...

Annon 8:40

the same applies to everywhere

consider the USA having 37 mio official homeless ( according to the deffinition of the UN)

US is almost Bankrupt. Israel if it does not receive handouts from the states would not survive the winter.

I am in Europe and around us hardly anyone is well off.

Stop magnifying Irans problems into a monstrosity....Iran is copyng well under this sanctions

Anonymous said...

I think Amir lives in a fantasy land. I suggest that you get out of your little protected world and to our world. Here is a suggestion. Go to the sugar factory in Marvdasht, close to Shiraz. Talk to the farmers who have not been paid for the beats that the sold last year. Talk to the factory workers who have not been on a regular basis for more than two years. Then check out a few of the stores around the factory and compare the prices to what a typical worker earns. This is pathetic.

Anonymous said...

Amir,

Interesting pieces of information about the trees, but somehow you managed to miss the forest.

Dictators who rule Iran, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, etc love to import the "modern" gadgets and give their citizens some toys to play with. However, they do not wish to see the modern institutions that have created these gadgets to be imported. I am talking about an open society, where you can question authority, challenge old ways of doing things and coming up with the next iphone.

You seem to pay too much attention to superficial matters. Dig deeper Amir.

Best,
Karim

Anonymous said...

Anon. July 16 8.40 pm
Don't know where you live but sadly you have no idea about many Iranian Scholars and academics living in America and Europe. The language you use in your post calling them "lat o poot" is a sign of the level of your upbringing, and intelligence. I assume you find the basijis in Iran more cultured and edjucated than the Iranian diaspora abroad.
If you live in Iran, I hope you enjoy thier company.
The 1000 us dollar monthly payment brings with it a very strong Electromagnetic field radiation that is damaging to the health of those people (Specially children) living there hence the monthly payment. That is why they get the money.

Anonymous said...

To anon 11:06 AM

What a song! Loved it, thanks.

Cheh budim va cheh shodim!

Mohammad said...

As far as the everyday-life things have been described in this article, as an Iranian living in Iran, I confirm them! As Amir excellently put, these are "facts" and so your only complaint can be of the possible "cherry-pickedness" of the facts. In that case, I think that the responsibility lies with the reader to read different sources to get a fair picture. The facts are too complex and numerous to be possible to enumerate them all, and even "balanced-ness" is a subjective notion. It depends on from whose view you're looking at Iran:
1. From a political dissident's view and his family and supporters, Iran is hell itself. Most Western media report on Iran-related facts as seen by these people: journalists being arrested, human rights deteriorating, the ruling elites clashing, etc. These are facts, but these people are only 10%-20% of Iranians (I'm basing this guess on opinion polls and personal observations, which of course are subjective!) and other people don't care much about these facts. Admittedly, these people are more numerous in central and north Tehran and other Westernized metropolitan areas, and also in universities, perhaps ~30%-40%.
2. From an apolitical Western-oriented pleasure-seeking youngster's view, there is no entertainment and the morality police sucks but these can be temporarily forgot with those gadgets Amir has described. These people are ~30% of Tehranis and 20% of Iranians. These overlap with the former and the latter group.
3. From an apolitical conservative view, life just goes on, the economy is neither too bad nor very rosy, and politics sucks, but the state of morality and religiosity is deteriorating and something should be done about it. These are 30% of Tehranis and 50% of all Iranians, and may overlap with the former or latter groups.
4. From pro-Khamenei view, a vigilant eye should be kept on the seditionists and the deviants and their Zionist and American masters, but otherwise life is enjoyable, hopes are high and everyone should work to fulfill the Leader's vision of economic jihad. These are 10-20% in Tehran and 30% in Iran.

So all of these are facts, but cherry-picked facts. The reality is so complex and multi-faceted. You should read both Amir Taheri, PressTV, etc. and also mainstream media.

But Amir Taheri has also covered a facet of life in Iran that is less covered in the media: the everyday life. The everyday life in Iran is so normal, to the extent of being boring. After all, Iran ranks in the middle of most development indicators (see HDI, GDP per capita, health indicators, technology diffusion, etc.) and if you've ever visited any mid-ranking developing country, you get the idea about life in Iran. The attention Iran gets in the media is not because of the domestic situation in Iran, it's because of the foreign politics of her.

Anonymous said...

Mohammad,

You better check your facts. Iran is ranked 77 on the per capita GDP and many other measures of welfare (about where Cost Rica and Serbia are). In terms of income distribution, Iran ranks near the bottom. Please see my detailed comments on another post by Amir on recent IMF visit to Iran.

Best,
Karim

Amir Taheri said...

Mohammad, thanks you said it better than I could ever have!

Fellow Being said...

Excellent article m8. I don't know why these negative haters, can't see an article shedding light on the good side of things for a change! They keep saying a real true journalist should be NEUTRAL! That is bull crap! First off nobody can ever be truly and absolutely neutral. Secondly the duty of a good journalist is not to be neutral and bring you raw information so that then you can judge for yourself; remember a camera always has an angle and focus point, it can never be neutral! No, the true and main duty of a good journalist is to see and recognize injustice and focus on the facts that should be focused on and ignore the facts that are already focused on by almost all hater medias! "Facts are enemies of truth" fact is Iran has problems, truth is Iran has many enemies! Fact is US has messed up economy, truth is Capitalism has failed! None of the readers here can say they are neutral, they either hate or love to varying degrees the Islamic Republic of Iran. So they are certainly in no position to judge neutrally or expect raw information and facts! A true journalist after recognizing truth must put things into right context! What are you afraid of? That these people may say you're biased? Come on, human by nature is biased! The willpower, the free-will the human consciousness when it focuses its attention on an object, is already subjective. Soft-war is the battle for hearts and minds and that requires soft-power which is the ability to manage the things people hate and love or doubt and believe. Embrace the battle openly and feel proud!

Amir Taheri said...

Wow Fellow being,

Your comments blew me away! Speechless ;) Ok one thing, completely agree... now speechless...

Mohammad said...

Karim,

I guess you're referring to your comments here:
http://www.uskowioniran.com/2011/07/galileos-curse.html
I didn't find any indication of Iran's rank in income distribution in those comments. But according to the UN Gini index (latest data in 2007), Iran ranks 81th in 120 countries.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_income_equality
I guess that qualifies Iran as a lower-middle country on that aspect. But well, I was talking about "most" development indicators. For example as you mentioned, Iran ranks 70-80 in GDP per capita, among 170+ countries, which is middle. In UNDP HDI which is the most cited index about welfare, Iran ranks 70 among 169 countries. If you look at other indicators, e.g. life expectancy, health spending per GDP or per capita, literacy rate, school enrollment, child mortality, internet penetration, gender inequality, portion of population living in poverty, etc. Iran consistently ranks near the middle.
http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/IRN.html

Anonymous said...

It's funny that with the multiple commentators praising the "facts" in this article, a number of very important facts are omitted. The Islamic Republic's life expectancy ranking among countries is somewhere between 103 and 132, lower than many countries much poorer than Iran:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_life_expectancy

Its infant mortality ranking is either 115 or 155 -- again quite pathetic:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_infant_mortality_rate

I guess certain folks enamored of the Islamic Republic have very, very, very low standards for "success" and "modernity".

Mohammad said...

Last Anonymous,

As I said, and evidenced by the data you linked to, Iran is a mid-ranking country in terms of welfare, on par with likes of Turkey, Brazil, Georgia and Thailand, and also higher than world average.

There's also another aspect: the development rate. On the following page, you can see each country's performance in the last two or so decades based on UNDP Human Development Index:
http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/index.html#hdirank

Iran's stats are available since 1990. Interestingly, Iran has had a higher *rate of improvement* than all of these (and other comparable countries, like Arab oil-rich states and even South Korea) since 1990! Of course, if we take before 1990 into account, Iran's performance would not be that good because of the revolution-related chaos and the Iran-Iraq war. Most of these countries (esp. South Korea) had high rates of growth before 1990. But overall, I think that overally, in peace-time, Iran's performance has been excellent. If you want to blame the Islamic Republic, you can blame it for the cost of revolution itself and the Iraq-imposed war, but its peacetime growth rate has been higher than world average, based on UN Development Program indices. Iran's absolute rank mostly suffers from its pre-1990 performance, not its afterwards performance.

Anonymous said...

Mohammad,

I guess it is a matter of glass half-full or half-empty. For me the glass is more than half-empty. For a country where the per capita income from just oil is about $1000, it is very unimpressive for the country to be ranked so low.

Many commentators do not realize that in the absence of the incredible increase in the price of oil, Iran would have experienced a negative growth in per capita GDP over the last 30 years. We are talking about a 30-year recession. This means the management of the local economy has been nothing short of disaster. By the way, this lack of sound local policies are shared by many resource-rich countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa.

Karim

reader said...

Fellow being

A richly articulated and structured argument but void in substance and spirit. Would you be accepting of a Fox News journalist using your argument as a template to justify the US animosity against IRI? I suggest you replace the following words in your argument and then read it again:

US with IRAN
“Islamic Republic of Iran” with “United State Of America”
“Capitalism” with “Theocracy” , “Islamism” or any other doctrine you fancy.

How does that sound?

PS. I enjoyed reading Amir’s column as much as you did, but the consistent tone of Amir’s weekly column gives the impression that he may be pre-devoted to a particular ideology or doctrine. He may or may not, I respect him either way as I do of Fellow Being.

Mohammad said...

Karim,

It seems that GDP growth in post-revolution Iran has not been as good as the improvement in living standards. Djavad Salehi Esfahani has discussed this in his landmark paper on poverty and inequality in Iran:
http://www.filebox.vt.edu/users/salehi/poverty%20and%20inequality_JOEI09.pdf

Excerpt: "... the fact that GDP per capita in recent years stands at about the same level
as it did 30 years ago adds significance to the finding (shown below) of much lower
poverty in 2005 compared to 1977."

Anonymous said...

Mohammad,

Actually, I am quite familiar with Djavad's paper. Its findings show that because of government's anti poverty policies, standard of living of the poor has improved without a corresponding increase in per capita GDP and a decrease in gini coefficient. This does not imply anything positive about the economic policies of the government. If anything, it points out that the government has not be able to increase the size of the economic pie. Such redistributive policies, as any economist would tell you, are not sustainable and soon or later have to be abandoned (see the recent changes in subsidy policies), and that is why over the last several years IMF had been urging Iran to eliminate these subsidies.

Karim