Residents of the apartment block have gathered in the basement parking lot and are talking nervously about events that took place over the past few nights. It’s still not clear how the thieves snuck into the building, now how they reached the roof, detached the motors of the air-conditioning units, and fled with them into the dark.
Kurosh, who has an apartment in the building, is furious at the new sense of insecurity that now has permeated the place where he and his family live. “An AC motor costs one to one and a half million tomans [US$235-$353],” he says, “and they’ve stolen six. At best, they’ll sell each for five or six thousand [$118-$141], but we’ve suffered a loss of nearly 10 million.”
In the last few weeks, Kurosh says, the residents have heard tell of other thefts from nearby blocks in Tehran. “They stole tools, satellite dishes, broken-down bicycles, stuff like that. Some didn’t even spare the TV antennas.”
Recently a spate of thefts from parts of an overpass in Tehran made the news. The city’s police chief quickly responded that the culprits had been identified; among them, he said, were some of the contract workers who had built the bridge.
It came off the back of other, scattered reports of late of opportunist thefts in Tehran: from light poles in parks and streets, of manhole covers over the sewers, and copper wires from the metro system. The apparent surge in petty thefts coincides with a period of protracted, eye-watering inflation and deepening post-pandemic poverty.
“Around a month ago, thieves got into the basement parking lots of our building and a few others, and stole the metal covers off the water meter boxes,” says Maryam, another Tehran resident. “It looks like they entered in a few phases. They were looking for a way to steal from the storerooms as well.”
On one occasion, Maryam told IranWire, a young man of around 30 was caught red-handed in one of the storerooms. He had already gathered up a few pieces of pipe, dishes and some metal objects. He had pleaded with the neighbors, telling them his wife was pregnant and due in a few weeks, and the family couldn’t afford hospital care for the birth.
“When the neighbors caught him and were about to call the police,” Maryam said, “he begged them not to do it. ‘I swear to god,’ he said, ‘this is the first time I’ve been here... Let me give you my wife’s number so you can call her, she’ll tell you I’ve been out of a job for a long time. We’re behind on rent and haven’t had a decent meal in days; we can’t even afford a few blocks of cheese.’”
The man told Maryam’s neighbors that if he went to jail, their situation would only get worse. But, she said, “In the end, even though we deeply sympathized with him, we had to turn him over to the police because the neighborhood no longer felt safe. I’m sure his story is the story of many young people in this country now.”
Hunger drives them to theft
Last month Abbas Abdi, a sociologist and a prominent reformist activist, wrote a column about a rise in petty thefts in Iran due to poverty. “These cases are thefts, of course, but they are not ordinary thefts,” he wrote. “They are thefts that resemble a cancer.
“It is enough to know that the screws taken from an electricity pole, or the copper wires stolen, are unlikely to bring the thieves even tens of thousands of tomans. But they can cost society millions, and even hundreds of millions.
“We can no longer call this normal theft. This the result of undoing of a decade of economic growth, the spread of poverty, and the sanctions. Unfortunately, forceful responses to the criminals have only a limited effect. When a given crime becomes this pervasive, police responses become irrelevant and ineffective.”
There remain officials in the Islamic Republic who claim that the sanctions have not done much to damage the economy, and even boast of the progress of the “resistance economy” in shielding the population from financial ruin. But the damaged done to the Iranian middle class speaks for itself – as do the uncovered manholes.
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Iran under a pseudonym.