* Khamenei to people: 'Buy Iranian' to stop 'foreign plots'
* Price rises, sinking rial temper New Year celebrations
* Thousands of wealthy Iranians head to beaches in UAE
* Government opens Nowruz markets to keep prices down
By Marcus George
DUBAI, March 19 Iran's most powerful figure,
clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged Iranians
at the start of their New Year on Tuesday to buy
domestically-made goods to defeat escalating trade sanctions
imposed by the West.
The United States and its allies have expanded sanctions in
recent months to force Tehran to shelve its uranium enrichment
programme, which they suspect is meant to develop atomic bombs.
Iran says it wants civilian nuclear energy only.
Sanctions have bitten deeply into Iran's economy, causing a
price spiral and a slump in the value of the rial currency. With
the country's hardline leadership continuing to reject all
foreign pressure, Iranians increasingly fear military action by
Israel or the United States to take out nuclear facilities.
"This year's slogan is national production, supporting
Iranian labour and investment. The Iranian people should consume
domestic products and avoid using those produced overseas,"
Khamenei said in a speech on state television.
"With such an approach, hopefully the nation will overcome
the conspiracies of the enemies. We pray to God to help the
Iranian nation," he added.
Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, symbolises the coming of
spring and a time when Iranians make a new start through
traditions dating back millennia. This year, as the pressures
grow, few hold out hope that life will improve.
Those who can afford it have taken the opportunity to escape
the social and religious strictures of the Islamic Republic for
the glitz and glamour of the nearby United Arab Emirates.
Every year, the sizable Iranian community in the UAE -- by
some estimates around 400,000 -- swells by tens of thousands as
Iranian tourists arrive in late March. It is a chance for the
well-heeled to celebrate the holidays in style by going to
concerts and clubs and shopping in Dubai's sprawling malls.
"Iranians are flooding in from all over the country and most
will stay for 10 to 12 days," says Emirates-based Saeed Kaveh,
the general manager of the Persian-language Ertebat Publishing.
In recent years Ertebat has produced a Nowruz guide in Farsi
that lists events and attractions for seasonal holiday-makers.
"Iranians want to swim in the sea, to party and generally
have fun," said Kaveh. "These things are forbidden in Iran and
that's why they grab and absorb people."
"The flight was jam-packed when I came over," said Mohammad
Hosseini, a Tehran-based Iranian as he sat in the lobby of one
of Dubai's luxury beachfront hotels.
"It's always so great to get out of Tehran. It's such a
frustrating place to live," said the 34-year-old businessman.
"But the price has rocketed. Last year, it cost around $2,000
but this time it's closer to $4,000."
The value of the rial has plummeted over the past year in
part because of expanding sanctions. These include a ban on
dealings with Iranian banks that makes it hard to obtain credit
to finance imports of key goods, as well as an embargo on
Iranian oil by the EU to take full effect in July.
Elsewhere in Dubai, a 20-year-old Iranian woman on holiday,
who named herself only as Saghi, hopped between designer shops
in the crowded Mall of the Emirates but wasn't buying much.
"It's so expensive," she said, standing outside
Dolce&Gabbana and discussing the rial's weakness with her
friends. "I bought shoes and a wallet but that's it," she said.
"I cannot afford anything," said a fellow student and
regular visitor to Dubai, "but it's wonderful to be here, to be
able to wear shorts and feel free."
Every year, Iranian visitors contribute billions of dollars
to the UAE economy but there are concerns the tightening
sanctions are reining in their spending in a big way. Trade
between the UAE and Iran has seen a significant drop.
"In the past, there have been up to 100,000 Iranian visitors
for Nowruz but this year it is reduced by around 50 percent,"
said Morteza Masoumzadeh, a member of the executive board of the
Iranian Business Council in Dubai.
The UAE has cooperated with the United States to impose
harsh financial sanctions but even Emirati businessman are
concerned the measures are detrimental to their own economy.
Away from the ostentation of Dubai, millions of Iranians are
struggling to afford the traditional foods and purchase of new
clothes that are traditionally enjoyed at Nowruz.
With the rial sinking, inflation in Iran has soared, a trend
that has been abetted by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
cost-cutting economic reforms that dropped generous food and
fuel subsidies Iranians have enjoyed for decades.
The government has set up local Nowruz markets in an effort
to keep the prices of food steady for the holidays - welcome
relief from hardships, 43-year-old Fatimeh, a restaurant
cleaner, said by telephone from Tehran.
"Prices have drastically gone up so it was harder to buy new
clothes for my children this year. But there are special Nowruz
markets in southern Tehran where things are more affordable."
Khamenei's new year message proclaimed successes in
industrial and technological fields. But that perception was not
shared by many ordinary Iranians.
"There is the talk of war against us and many businesses are
already struggling to survive with these sanctions imposed on
us. I hope the situation gets better in the new year," said
46-year-old Ali, who works in his family's carpet export
company. "I am afraid this year will be a bad year for my
Over the last year, many thousands of workers have been laid
off by businesses that have closed because of the dramatic
increase in financial pressures. In many cases costs have shot
up and orders have dwindled.
Struggling to improve their prospects, many Iranians dream
of leaving the country for a better life elsewhere.
"I look around me and most of my friends have left the
country. Life is only enjoyable when you are with your loved
ones. Without them it is really like any other day," said Neda,
a 27-year-old art student.
"It doesn't really feel like Nowruz this year."
As he prepared for an afternoon on the beach in Dubai,
Mohammad Hosseini said a point could come soon where he would
have to lay off his 30 employees, shut down his transport
business and leave Tehran.
"It'll be very sad, very emotional but the option is on the
table. We're thinking about it seriously. This business is my
baby. Eleven years of investment and hard work - I can't believe
we're getting to this point.
"We have always tried to stay optimistic about the future
but now I'm thinking may there isn't a bright light at the end
of the tunnel."
(Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Boyle)