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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 17:35 GMT
Iranian postcards: The new rich
In the run-up to parliamentary elections in Iran, Maria Sarsalari, a writer from the BBC Persian Service, gives a snapshot of an aspect of contemporary life in the Islamic Republic.

It's all a very long way from the classless society promised by the Islamic revolution
The new rich frequent Tehran's exclusive boutiques and flashy shopping malls
If you take a drive into Tehran's northern suburbs, you feel as though you are entering a different world. Dotted along the quiet, leafy streets are Hollywood-style mansions set back from the road behind walls and gates.

These are the homes of Iran's new rich, the people who have done well out of the Islamic revolution.

Many of the new elite either belong to or are related to the country's ruling religious establishment. Outsider observers have dubbed them the "millionaire mullahs".

It's easy to spot the new rich. They're the ones dressed in designer clothes, driving BMWs through Tehran's congested streets. They frequent the city's exclusive boutiques and flashy shopping centres. They belong to private golf clubs in the countryside and they make frequent trips abroad, to London, Paris and Dubai.

Lucrative deals

It's all a very long way from the classless society promised by the Islamic revolution, and the famously modest way of life of its spiritual leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Many families have done well out of the Islamic revolution
Western dress and goods are popular with the young in Tehran's northern suburbs
The new rich have made their money thanks largely to the idiosyncrasies of Iran's economic system. Most of country's industrial sector is owned by the state.

But those with the right connections can apply for foreign-trade licenses to negotiate deals and set up joint ventures in lucrative areas such as oil, car manufacture and food production.

In the 1990s, the government embraced privatisation, and hundreds of businesses were sold off - once again, to those who knew the right people.

Then there are the charitable foundations, or "bonyads", which control up to one quarter of the economy. Set up after the revolution to manage companies confiscated from the old regime, these charities were given over to some of the most trusted clerics in the Islamic establishment.

High unemployment

Over the years, they have benefited from tax breaks and preferential loans to become highly successful commercial operations. The biggest are comparable to multi-national conglomerates in the West. But their accounting practices are not open, and they are not accountable to the government.

There's widespread desire for change but also a widespread feeling that those who have done so well out of the system, will be reluctant to give up their place in the sun
Despite the millions being made, it's striking that business in Iran remains in the hands of a relatively small elite. Almost all the people running the country and running the economy are related to each other either by blood or marriage.

Ordinary Iranians complain that without contacts inside the system, it's impossible to get top jobs, or to be successful in business. Unemployment is now far higher than it was in the Shah's time, and 40% of the population lives below the poverty line. For young people struggling to make ends meet, it's one more reason to resent the mullahs and their regime.

There's now a widespread desire for change in Iran, but also a widespread feeling that those who have done so well out of the current system, will be reluctant to give up their place in the sun.

In the Shah's time, people are fond of saying, the people at the top would eat their bread, and we used to get the crumbs. But nowadays people complain that some mullahs lick their plates so clean that there's not a single thing left over for the rest of us.

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