TEHRAN, Iran — For months, since the imposition of harsh, U.S.-led sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s leaders have sworn they would never succumb to Western pressures, and they scoffed at the idea that the measures were having any serious impact. But after a week in which the Iranian currency, the rial, fell by a shocking 40 percent and protests began to rumble through the capital, no one is making light of the mounting costs of confrontation.
In the Iranian capital, all anyone can talk about is the rial, and how lives have been turned upside down in one terrible week. Every elevator ride, office visit, or quick run to the supermarket brings new gossip about the currency’s drop and a swirl of speculation about who is to blame.
“Better buy now,” one rice seller advised Abbas Sharabi, a retired factory guard, who had decided to buy 900 pounds of Iran’s most basic staple in order to feed his extended family for a year.
“As I was gathering my money, the man received a phone call,” said Sharabi, smoking cigarette after cigarette on Thursday while waiting for a bus. “When he hung up he told me prices had just gone up by 10 percent. Of course I paid. God knows how much it will cost tomorrow.”
While only a few people actually need to exchange the rial for foreign currency, its value is one of the few clear indicators of the state of the economy, and its fall has sharply raised the prices of most staples.
In Tehran, many residents spend their days calling on money changers and visiting banks, deliberating whether to sell their rials now or wait for a miracle that would restore the rates to old levels, or for even a modest rally from the panic-driven lows of the last week.
“The fluctuations are so large that nobody knows whether it is better to wait or to change now,” said Ahmad, 65, as he shared a taxi to the west Tehran neighborhood of Sadeghiyeh.
“I am so fed up,” said Ahmad, a garment seller, who like others here did not want to be identified by his full name for fear of retribution from the authorities. “I want to have a normal life, but from breakfast, to lunch to dinner, everybody only nervously talks of hard currency.”
Like many residents of the capital, Ahmad had tuned in to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s news conference on Tuesday, hoping that he would offer some sort of solution.
Instead, Ahmadinejad attributed most of the rial’s weakness to currency speculators and the sanctions, saying that it is only natural that the currency should suffer when it is possible to sell oil only in small quantities and when it is hard to make international bank transfers.