June 11, 2009 / 3:35 PM / 9 years ago

Life in Iran under the Shah and now

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iranians vote on Friday in the 10th presidential election since the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the U.S.-backed Shah.

A man decorated with pictures of Iranian President and candidate for the upcoming presidential election Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends Ahmadinejad's address to supporters in front of the Sharif University in Tehran in this June 10, 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj/Files

Three decades after the revolution, Reuters invited some older Iranians who witnessed the Shah’s overthrow to look back at the changes they have lived through.

Here are some of their views:

LIVING COSTS

“Before the revolution, most Iranians could afford to buy a flat, but now even rents are not affordable for people like me,” said Mahmoud Sardari, a retired government employee who earns $400 a month.

“I had a 150 square meter apartment then and I could afford to travel abroad with my two daughters and my wife. But now with this high inflation I feel poorer every passing day.”

Sardari, 62, has little patience for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic populism, but said reformers offer little alternative since all candidates promise to redistribute oil wealth, rather than restructure the economy.

With official inflation at 15 percent “every month my purchasing power drops and I am preoccupied with daily livelihood,” he said.

Under the Shah, the middle class constituted a majority of Iran’s population, said Sardari. “But now Iranians are mainly lower income people.”

Architect Alireza Naghshband, 67, disagrees.

“Since 1979, we weathered international sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s,” he said. “Still, people like me have much better living standards than before the revolution.

“Under the Shah most Iranians were poor except those linked to the royal family. But since 1979 Iran has become the land of opportunities for all Iranians.”

TRAVEL AND RESPECT

Retired teacher Mahin Hamedani, 72, has not seen her U.S.-based children and grandchildren since 2004. “I have tried unsuccessfully to get a U.S. visa. I miss my children and grandchildren so much,” she said.

“Before the revolution, Iranians could get a (U.S.) visa from the American embassy in Tehran easily.”

Washington cut ties with Iran shortly after the revolution. Before that, Iran had interaction with the rest of the world, said Hamedani.

“But now we are on two different sides of the spectrum. Iranians do not see the same respect abroad that we used to see under the Shah.”

ISLAMIC DRESS CODE

Artist Shirin Ghavamian, 58, wears colorful clothes in Islamic Iran, where women are obliged to cover their hair and wear long, loose clothing to disguise their figures and protect their modesty. Offenders can face fines and even jail.

“Using bright colors instead of browns and greys favored by the system gives me a morale boost,” she said. “Under the Shah, a woman was much more respected if she was not covered from head to toe.”

But housewife Zahra Farrokhi, 50, says dictating what women wear — whether “Islamic or un-Islamic dress” — is wrong.

“Before the revolution I chose to respect the Islamic dress code. It was very difficult under Shah to take such a decision. I was not welcomed at all by society,” she said.

Since Ahmadinejad won the presidency in 2005, promising a return to the values of the revolution, hardliners have pressed for tighter controls on women flouting the strict Islamic dress code.

FREEDOM OF SPEECH

Many Iranians remember the Shah’s secret police, Savak.

“Under the Shah we could not even think about criticizing the system publicly, because of the Savak,” said Iraj Nemati, 60, owner of a carpet shop.

Slideshow (3 Images)

“But wherever you go now, people are criticizing the system, the government’s economic policies and so on,” he said. “Today Iranians enjoy much more freedom of expression than 30 years ago.

“Iranians turned against the Shah because there was no freedom in the country,” he said.

Rights groups and Western diplomats say the Islamic Republic has escalated a crackdown on dissenting voices since Ahmadinejad came to power, possibly in response to Western pressure on Tehran over its disputed nuclear work. Iran denies the claim.

Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Dominic Evans and Sara Ledwith

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