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Iran: Unemployment Becoming A 'National Threat'

According to official estimates, some 3.5 million working-age Iranians are currently unemployed. The jobless rate is particularly high among the women and youth of the Islamic Republic. Authorities are calling unemployment a national threat and one of the country's most pressing priorities.

Prague, 12 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Ali, a 24-year-old Iranian, has spent the past four years looking for work. He has a high-school degree and is qualified to work as a make-up artist, but has never been able to find work suited to his interests.

A month ago, he finally relented and accepted a job as a taxi driver. It was, he says, his last choice.

"In fact I [had] to look for a job to make a living even if it is in no way connected to my interests and expertise. The main thing which is clear to everyone in Iran is that is that there are no jobs. There are very few job opportunities and when there is one, there are so many applicants that you can get that job only if you're lucky enough or you have good contacts. For every job opportunity, there are hundreds of applicants," he says.

"I don't think things will get better. I mean, considering how things are moving here, I would say this is it."
Iran's official unemployment rate is about 13 percent. But economists estimate the real figure is more than 20 percent.

According to official estimates, unemployment is especially rife among Iran's youth and women, where jobless rates can soar as high as 30 percent.

The rise in unemployment comes as more and more young women are pursuing university degrees, despite the lack of jobs. The Planning and Policy Affairs Ministry says the female unemployment rate is twice that of men.

Economists say Iran will have to create more than a million new jobs every year in order to accommodate its young population. But only about 300,000 new jobs are created each year, leaving the country's youth frustrated and disillusioned.

Observers say the rising unemployment rate is behind many of Iran's emerging social ills, such as drug addiction. There are currently more than 2 million drug addicts in the country. Young people like Ali say unemployment is also causing deep rifts in family relationships.

"I've noticed that no matter how open-minded and intellectual [the parents] are, and no matter how much understanding they have for their children, they come to the point where they have only one question for their children and that is 'Why don't you work?'" Ali said.

Ali Rashidi is a leading economist based in Tehran. He says the roots of Iran's unemployment crisis date back to the early 1980s and the country's policies following the start of the Iran-Iraq War.

"[Iran] wanted to have an army of 20 million. And as a result, they encouraged pregnancy and the rate of population increased from something like 1.7 to 4, 4.5. As a result, the population of Iran has doubled during the last 25 years. So this increasing population is far from what the economy can absorb, and at the same time the policies that have been followed since the end of the war have nothing to propose in terms of absorbing this extra population," Rashidi said.

Furthermore, he says, Iran's investments in industry and agriculture have not been planned to produce the greatest number of jobs possible.

"In other words, the industrial policy has been concentrated in industries absorbing a lot of capital with little labor. For example, you spend a lot of money for steel production or the metallurgy industry and the rate of employment does not go as far as the capital is concerned. So the policy in industry, agriculture has not been conducive to absorb this extra population," Rashidi said.

Rashidi says that most new jobs are being created in the private sector or on the grey market, and therefore do not contribute to reducing overall unemployment rates or raising production rates.

Most of Iran's jobless population is classified as unskilled labor with a high school education or lower. But unemployment is also growing among university graduates, pushing many of them to seek opportunities abroad. According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran has the world's highest rate of brain drain.

Iranian officials have also expressed concern about the growing rate of joblessness among physicians. Nearly 10,000 doctors in Iran are currently unemployed.

Unemployment is also a major problem for educated young Iranians who cannot find suitable jobs in line with their level of education.

Economists say in order to tackle the growing unemployment rate, Iran should push through economic reforms that will increase production and investment.

"We have to revitalize the economy by changing the planning system, the decision makers, and also the sectors of the economy which could produce more productive jobs rather than relying on the service sector or illegal, black market, and things of that sort," Rashidi said.

Meanwhile, 24-year-old Ali says there is little hope among Iran's youth that things are likely to improve anytime soon.

"We all know that we live our life day by day, always hoping that things will get better on their own. I don't think things will get better. I mean, considering how things are moving here, I would say this is it. Many things will never change but humans always keep hoping," Ali said.

The International Labor Organization in a recent report urged countries to tackle youth unemployment in order to avoid what it called "the creation of a huge cadre of frustrated, uneducated or unemployable young people that could have a devastating impact on long-term development prospects."
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.