Iran: soap is scarce, traffic is back

Almost five years after Iran's revolution, everyday life in Tehran appears back to normal at first glance. Gasoline and heating oil shortages are over. Traffic is as snarled as before the revolution. Peddlers selling cigarettes and chewing gum are back on the sidewalks.

Under the first snow of winter, children eat cooked sugar beets while city workers warm their hands over braziers improvised in the drains. Nearby, Armenian merchants sell Christmas trees.

''Provided you have a lot of money,'' a man says, ''you can buy almost anything here.'' Shops selling luxury jewelry and fashionable clothes have reopened.

On closer inspection, one sees that everyday life is still a struggle for those who can't afford the high prices. They shop with government-issued coupons , paying prices set by the government. This system is regularly disrupted by shortages.

It is almost impossible to buy toothpaste and soap with coupons. ''I don't understand why the government doesn't force producers and importers to give priority to the regulated market,'' a woman says. ''Two weeks ago I couldn't find eggs with my coupons, but they were available on the free market at three times the regular price.''

''There is a relative shortage of postage stamps,'' a man adds. ''But on the post office doorsteps, kids make money selling them at double the price.''

Some in Tehran say this chaotic distribution system mainly benefits wholesalers who often create artificial shortages to push prices up.

Supporters of the parallel market system say it favors the poor. ''During the imperial regime,'' a man says, ''the underprivileged in the south of Tehran wouldn't eat meat more than once a week. Now their coupons give them the right to three times more. Even with the shortages, they are better off.''

People with government connections have advantages. But in general, life in Tehran is hard these days. The average family can pay upwards of three-quarters of its income to rent a modest apartment. Inflation is terrible, though exact figures are not available. By the end of the afternoon, one sees civil servants driving taxis to earn extra money. Poor people in the south of Tehran reportedly sell their food coupons to wealthy people.

Iranian leaders acknowledge these shortcomings. Prime Minister Hossein Mussavi and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini often talk about food shortages, saying they are caused by the war. They castigate ''hoarders and anti-Islamic elements who try to undermine the revolution.'' The Islamic code is still enforced. But since Ayatollah Khomeini called for more respect for individual rights a year ago, things have loosened up.

''It is not so terrible as I thought it would be,'' says a woman just back from studying abroad. ''When in the street, I carefully hide my hair and part of my forehead. But I see lots of women more casually covered.''

Television is more entertaining these days. While the news still consists of reports from the front and interviews with officials, movies and game shows are back. On Friday afternoons, there are cartoon festivals.

'' 'Tom and Jerry' have become revolutionary superstars,'' one man jokes.

In the street, Revolutionary Guards, patrolling in their new Japanese-made four-wheel drive vehicles, are less evident than they were a year ago. Although they still make arbitrary arrests, they clearly have been ordered to stop interfering with private lives and to be more polite.

Any attempt to organize political opposition is still immediately crushed. But ''the regime is growing more confident in itself,'' says a diplomat. Indeed, no armed clashes with opponents have been reported in recent months and roadblocks in the streets have disappeared.

But Amnesty International, the human-rights group, and opposition sources say that large numbers of prisoners are tortured and executed. A reliable source in Tehran says detention conditions have improved. ''Corporal punishment,'' says this source, ''is on the decline.''

A man who lives near Tehran's Evin Prison says: ''There is less shooting at night in the prison yard, the number of executions has sharply decreased.''

But the revolutionary judicial system remains under the control of hard-liners. Assadollah Lajevardi, who oversees executions, still runs Evin Prison.

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