Zhila, a manicurist, burst into a beauty salon in an upmarket part of Tehran, late for work and in tears. “My car was stolen last night,” she told the dozen or so women gathered there, who immediately began to recount their own experiences of theft and petty crime.
“It was an old Peugeot 206 which I had parked outside the building, naively thinking no one would ever steal that,” Zhila added, to sympathetic murmurs in the busy salon in a shopping mall. “The police will find it but it will be probably an iron corpse with no spare parts.”
In recent months, the incidence of crime and petty theft has risen as Iran’s economy has reeled from US sanctions that have contributed to inflation above 40 per cent and youth unemployment of about 18 per cent. With the economy forecast by the IMF to shrink 9.5 per cent this year, last month saw the biggest and most violent unrest in about four decades as protesters railed against the abolition of fuel subsidies.
But even those who have not taken to the streets, whose wealth and privilege normally insulates them from the worst deprivations of life under sanctions, have been affected by rising crime.
The number of thefts have risen 30 per cent over the past year, said General Ayub Soleimani, the deputy police chief, while online theft has almost doubled over that period. “The trend of thefts had been declining,” Gen Soleimani said, referring to the economic uptick that followed the signing of the nuclear deal with world powers. US president Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the deal last year and reimpose sanctions have since upended the Iranian economy. “But some [ economic] conditions have come up which are beyond the capacity of the police,” Gen Soleimani added.
Rising levels of petty crime have fuelled public frustration in the Islamic republic, where people have long been used to high levels of security. “This is getting on people’s nerves on a daily basis, hearing about thefts of even small things like mobile phones,” one reformist politician said. “People feel they have to watch around all the time even when they walk in the streets.”
Iranian-made cars, notably the budget Pride model — which accounts for up to 40 per cent of vehicles on the country’s roads — are particularly vulnerable to theft. Car owners have increasingly put locks on hoods, tyres and clutches as well as alarms. But mechanics have said that in practice this makes very little difference. “Thieves in a blink of eye open all the locks,” said one. “We only try to make it a bit difficult, buy one or two minutes and cause a delay.”
Bagher, who installs burglar alarms and surveillance cameras, said that sales have improved by about 30 per cent this year compared with last year. “Thieves know that people in affluent neighbourhoods keep gold and foreign currencies at home,” he said. “Those in poorer areas install cameras outside because they don’t have much at home but need to keep an eye on cars parked outside their houses.”
The challenge for the authorities of the republic, which has long styled itself as a champion of the poor, is how to punish wrongdoers, without further stirring unrest. Under the Islamic penal code, the punishment for petty crimes can be two years in jail and up to 74 lashes. The law allows for amputation of hands for theft, though it is very rare for this to happen.
For now, some victims express frustration that they did not find the police helpful. “The police told us to let thieves escape and not to fight with them because they may be armed and harm us,” said Azam, who had gold jewellery worth about $20,000 stolen from her apartment. Her 18-year-old son interrupted the thieves when he arrived home. They threatened to stab him before escaping. “What kind of police is this? And what kind of security?” she said. “I can forget about the gold including my marriage ring. But what about my son who has become sleepless and paranoid?”
Even once safe villages are no longer immune. Zari, a Tehran housewife, was shocked when their villa in a village near Tehran was robbed for the first time last month. “The thief not only stole all the old copper pots I had inherited from my grandmother but even the butter in the fridge,” she says. “The police caught the thief, a local resident and drug addict. He said ‘I ate the food and sold the rest’. He was clearly hungry. We forgave him.”
Back in the beauty salon, another manicurist recounts the time her brother took his newborn baby to his parents’ house for dinner. “When he went out, he couldn’t believe that car parts had been stolen while we were eating,” she said. “The problem is that it doesn’t happen only to you and your family. When customers come here with stories of thefts, you fear this is now going to be part of our every day life.”