Iranian capital's usually joyous Persian festival, Nowruz, is clouded by fear of war, exhaustion and public anger
Saeed Kamali Dehghan
guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 February 2012 14.27 EST
This is the time of year when Iranians prepare for the most important holiday of the Persian calendar, Nowruz, the ancient Zoroastrian festival marking the spring equinox. Carpets are washed, furniture wiped down, tables set with painted eggs and children are bought new clothes. Family come to visit: there are many faces you get the chance to see only once a year.
This year, the 13-day family celebration which is meant to blow away the fatigue of winter is clouded by the fear of war, exhaustion and public anger caused by political discontent at home and western economic sanctions.
"How can I keep my head held high in front of my children with an empty pocket at this time of the year?" asked Mohammad, a 35-year-old high school teacher from Tehran with two sons. "I'm supposed to give them happiness and joy. Instead I feel ashamed at not being able to fulfil their expectations."
Despite Tehran's problems, the streets of the city are packed. "In the final weeks of the year, you just can't sit at home," said Leila, 28, who is looking for a job as a lawyer. "You have to go out but whether you are able to buy anything is another question.
"It is as if an epidemic of sorrows has contaminated everyone. You can't see the joy of Nowruz in people, only lifeless faces and hopeless hearts."
For Morteza, a 23-year-old student at Tehran University, the tension is palpable. "I feel more people are becoming short-tempered," he said. "It's as if they are eager to engage in a petty quarrel for no reason, all results of the current tense atmosphere in the country.
"People are under huge psychological pressure deriving from restrictions on civil liberties, as well as economic grievances caused by western sanctions and uncertainty due to the threat of war."
The latest US and EU sanctions over the Islamic Republic's nuclear programme including an embargo on the import of Iranian oil have already affected local businesses even before they are fully implemented in July.
The impact is perhaps most conspicuous in the Grand Bazaar, the heartbeat of the capital's economy, which hosts businesses from carpet sellers to the fish and meat markets.
Nosrat, 37, who sells women's scarves, said: "We are crossing our fingers for Nowruz, hoping people might come at least to buy at this time of the year." But without cash in their pockets, people were buying from cheaper pedlars.
Mehran, who owns a clothing boutique in Bazar Reza near Tehran's Imam Khomeini mosque in the south of the capital, said: "We call it the year of the death of the trade guilds. My store is still full of the items I brought in autumn."
Iran's currency, the rial, has lost at least half its value since December as a result of the western sanctions, which have also hit Iran's central bank. Dollars have become scarce because the sanctions target crude sales, which form up to 80% of Iran's export revenue and are the main source of foreign currency.
Mostafa, who has a boutique in Bazaar Reza said: "Fluctuations in exchange rates and shortage of dollars is our main problem. Traders don't dare to buy new items in this crisis."
He blamed his economic difficulties on western sanctions. "Americans have always found an excuse to make problems for us. They claim to have targeted the regime but ordinary people like me who rent houses and have small private businesses pay the price."
A woman who works in a TV shop in Tehran said traders were desperately looking to find new, non-dollar markets. "Dubai is a main source of trade but with restrictions even reaching there, many are thinking about other alternatives like Russia," she said. "It's unconventional to import TVs and sound equipment from Russia but many are adapting themselves to the new situation."
India, which has refused to implement a full oil embargo against Iran, has started to pay Tehran in rupees.
Western leaders have argued that the sanctions are aimed at the regime but many economists warn that they will bring the economy to its knees, and the people will ultimately carry the burden.
In the run-up to Nowruz, Iranians have difficulties in buying enough food. The prices of fruit and sugar, among other staples, have soared. The price of meat has doubled in the past fortnight.
Ahmad, who has a butcher's shop, blamed the depreciation of the rial for the soaring cost of meat. "Farmers usually import feed and now have difficulty in either importing them or buying them with expensive dollars," he said.
The squeeze and threat of war has left many wanting to emigrate. Ramin, a Tehran resident, said: "People have fears of the future for their children, they don't see any prosperity in Iran." Others are thinking of moving within Iran in order to avoid possible air strikes. "Some of my relatives in Bushehr [where a nuclear plant is situated] are thinking of selling their house and moving to another city in fear of an Israeli strike," said Ramin.
Many Iranians are reported to have stockpiled staples in case of a western attack. Others are hoping war will come and topple the regime. "What shocks me is to see some of my countrymen waiting for a US or Israeli war that they think would lead to a regime change," Ramin said. "They don't realise war is not necessarily going to do that."
For those Iranians who support the nuclear programme they do not, necessarily, support the regime its controversy is generating patriotic sentiments. "It's difficult to say whether talk of war has united Iranians over its nuclear programme, but war would ruin and push back all achievements gained by our democratic movements," said Ramin.
Iran is also exploiting that sentiment over the nuclear programme to cover internal divisions. Last week, officials unveiled what they described as "new nuclear advances" in a ceremony watched by millions of Iranians on national television.
This week they announced the production of a film about the assassinations of Iranian scientists. The wife of one of the victims was also quoted in the semi-official Fars news agency as urging people to participate in parliamentary elections on 2 March the first vote since 2009 which are crucial to the legitimacy of the regime.
"Talk of war, sanctions and Iran's nuclear programme has put us in a situation where the west might easily turn a blind eye on the lives of the ordinary people in the country," said Vincent Huck, a Brazilian journalist, who visited Iran last month. "I was shocked to see an Iran which was so different from its picture available in the west."
Some names have been changed. An Iranian journalist contributed from Tehran