A late-night car crash in Tehran has led to renewed debate on class, poverty, and inequality in Iran, says Behrouz Mina

Many speculate about the future of Iran, the potential of its economy and social evolution. But one thing is certain: inequality is on the rise. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen.

At the end of April, news emerged about two car accidents in Tehran, which took place in the small hours of the morning. The fatal crashes involved two luxury cars. The first involved a BMW, and news soon emerged that Hamid Kamali, a champion racing driver, had been killed in the accident.

The other accident involved a a Porsche belonging to the grandson of a famous ayatollah. At the wheel was a beautiful young woman, who had been driving at more than 120mph when the car hit a tree in Tehran’s Shariati Street, which connects the northern and southern parts of the city. Both died in the crash.

In Iran, luxury cars are the playthings of the rich, as they are in so many other parts of the world. Maserati and Porsche sell more cars in Tehran than in many metropolitan areas in the United States or the European Union. But for those who follow the Iranian economy, it might have been surprising and confusing to discover that, at the peak of sanctions enforcement, hundreds of luxury cars found their way into Iran’s markets. At that time, government officials were not able to import the necessary medical supplies and food —  and yet the rich and the well connected managed to get their Maseratis using hard currencies. One could say that, for them, a Porsche is more important than bread. Children of privileged officials enjoy these luxuries to the fullest, and feel protected from any possible intrusion.   

Races and so-called “car parties” are a common occurrence in late-night Tehran. Fast and Furious is not a movie in Tehran, it’s a lifestyle. Reza, who commutes to Tehran from Karaj, 30 miles west of the capital, told IranWire, “If you are on the road at around 2 or 3am, you see the rule of law does not exist any more”.

Some people are even frightened to drive in Tehran late at night. “Sometimes I see cars speeding at 160 mph on the highway, passing me like rockets”, said Hamed, who works as a night guard. He has not been involved in an accident so far, but he does not feel safe on the roads, where he says the rich kids of Tehran make their mark late at night.

Most Iranians firmly believe the rich kids are all connected to the political establishment. “One Aghazadegan can do this with easy money,” posted a man called Sajjad on Twitter, using a term regularly applied to the children of the rich and powerful. “Aghazadegan” literally means the offspring of an Agha, or master.

Not long after the accidents, and long before dawn, Iranian social media was flooded with speculation, unverified news, and rumors.

First it was believed that the deceased boy was the son of a famous soccer coach, who is infamous for his financial dealings. But then it was confirmed that it was Muhammad Hussein Rabbani, a grandson of Ayatollah Rabbani, who had been a member of the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts in the early years of the revolution and was later assassinated. Muhammad Hussein Rabbani’s companion in the car was Ms. Parivash Akbarzadeh, an Instagram celebrity with more than 34,000 followers. She was a beautiful young lady who followed fashion and was photographed wearing the latest clothes — refusing to adhere to Islamic dress code.

Following the accident, hundreds commented on to Parivash’s Facebook and Instagram webpages, and they became open forums for people to express their frustrations, anger and sorrow — and even make sexually charged comments. The outpouring was unexpected in a society where the dead, and memories of them, are traditionally respected and considered sacred. Salar on Twitter responded with anger and surprise: “By God, every day, a thousand poor girls die suffering from the old rich men’s desires in this city and no one utters a word!” Many asked why people had commented so liberally on these incidents but chose to remain silent on poverty, violence against women and so many other social issues.

Around the world, people follow celebrity news closely, and Iran is no exception. But the Iranian government has its own vision on who can be a celebrity. Entertainment news must follow official guidelines. Government-sanctioned media does not offer any juicy details of stormy divorces or who is dating who. Images are also censored according to the official interpretation of Islam. All women are covered in keeping with government stipulations. In this environment, Instagram and Facebook have given people the chance to choose their own celebrities to follow. People such as Parivash Akbarzadeh, with their beauty and fashionable lifestyles, become instant celebrities. Many people follow them as one would follow a model or a star. And most of them know that if they were to follow in Ms. Akbarzadeh’s footsteps, they would be fired from their jobs and thrown out of school. Living freely is also a luxury in Iran — afforded only by politically connected families.

Iran’s ruling class has been in power for four decades now, enjoying absolute control and the permission to intrude and to interfere at all levels of socio-economic life in Iran. They came to power following a revolution for social justice and equality. But, ironically, the Islamic Republic of Iran is led by people who seem more eager to follow the example of the last decade of Pahlavi family’s rule — in line with the way they believe it was — than in following the examples set by the pious founding fathers of Islamic Republic.  They enjoy life and its luxuries to the fullest: a life of speed, sex and corrupt financial dealings. But sometimes, the children of these elite families race to embrace this life too fast, and fall into an open gap.

The recent road accidents in Tehran were tragic: no one can help but mourn the passing of a promising young man or woman. And yet, Iranians are angry. The middle class families who have experienced four decades of harassment, who have been denied employment and promotion because they did not live according to official rules, whose private lives have been constantly monitored and interrupted, cannot fathom this gross exhibition of luxurious decadent life style. They are using these tragic incidents to express their anger, surprising many with their comments. Nassim, a girl Ms. Akbarzadeh’s age, shared the news of the deaths with her followers on Twitter with dark cynicism: “a bad bitch and a dude whose granny was an Ayatollah had smashed their car, a Porsche or BMW and are done for”. To think: one day historians might quote her. 

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