The investment gold rush that was supposed to follow Iran's nuclear deal with world powers and revitalise the economy has not materialised, leaving many voters disillusioned ahead of Friday's election.
The figures say it all — President Hassan Rouhani wanted $50 billion a year in foreign investment to reach his target of eight-percent growth.
But since the nuclear deal came into force in January 2016, lifting some sanctions in exchange for curbs to Iran’s atomic programme, only $1-2 billion worth of deals have actually been finalised, his deputy Eshaq Jahangiri admitted to AFP this week.
Unofficial polls still show Rouhani in the lead for Friday’s election, but faced with a 12.5-percent unemployment rate it is no wonder that many have lost faith in his administration.
The problem is even worse for young people, with more than a quarter of 18- to 25-year-olds out of work, and many of the rest taking jobs far below their education level.
“I studied five years at one of Iran’s top architecture universities but what I’m doing now could be done by someone who learnt the software on a two-month course,” said 24-year-old designer Parnian Dalili, who nonetheless felt lucky to have landed a job at all.
All this has been a boon for Rouhani’s conservative opponents, who say the government has failed to cash in on the nuclear deal and ignored the plight of the poor.
“A tree that has not born any fruit in four years will not yield anything positive in the future,” said Tehran mayor and presidential candidate Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf in the final debate on Friday.
– Waiting game –
For all its troubles, Iran with its diverse economy and large, cosmopolitan middle class is still a great untapped opportunity among emerging markets, and hardly a week goes by without another huge business delegation coming from Europe or Asia.
Big names such as Siemens, Renault and Nestle are on the ground and hungry to expand.
But everyone is wary of US President Donald Trump, who has threatened to tear up the nuclear accord.
The US has also maintained a raft of sanctions that continue to scare off global banks which companies need to finance their deals.
“In the absence of large banking firms, the deals can’t happen,” said Farid Dehdilani, of the Iranian Privatisation Organisation.
He recently returned from a roadshow in London, where he found a lot of interest from investors in coming to Iran.
“But everyone is waiting for someone just a little bit bigger to make the first move,” he said.
“They understand the risks and they’re willing to take them, but the uncertainty over Trump and other factors is putting them off.”
The crucial test is whether Trump continues to waive the sanctions suspended under the nuclear deal, which he must sign off over the next two months.
“All the big firms, especially the energy companies, are waiting to see whether Trump will keep the sanctions suspended,” said a French businessman in Tehran.
The one clear success for Iran has been the return of oil sales, with exports doubling to almost 2.8 million barrels per day since the deal.
Rouhani says he will use this money to invest in the economy, and vowed this week to work for the removal of all remaining US sanctions over the next four years, although that would require a major attitude shift from the Trump administration.
“People have seen the benefits of the (nuclear deal) because there’s stability. They’re no longer worrying about prices going up overnight and having to hide dollars under their mattress,” said Dehdilani.
“But people were over-excited. Iran could be a trillion-dollar economy, but it will take time.”
And many fear the meagre progress of the past year could evaporate if the hardliners win on Friday, since they would likely take a much less friendly approach to the West.
“If the conservatives win, we might as well just pack up and go home,” said a European diplomat.