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Iranians See Little Hope Elections Will Alleviate Economic Strain

In November, Mr. Sadeghi gave a speech in Parliament accusing the head of the judiciary, Sadegh Amoli-Larijani, of maintaining a secret bank account to collect diverted public funds. After the speech, representatives of the judiciary tried to arrest him, but were stopped when dozens of people gathered in front of his house to protect him.

Nevertheless, change for Mr. Sadeghi and many within Iran’s establishment means altering existing law, not overhauling Iran’s political system and establishment.

And that change is halting. For instance, in 2016, Parliament passed a measure that would have made women eligible for top political positions, only to have it blocked by the 12-member Guardian Council — now led by a 90-year-old hard-liner, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati — which reviews all new laws to ensure they are properly “Islamic.”

Parliament’s attempts to make it easier for women to obtain a divorce and more difficult for men to take a second wife were similarly rejected by the council, which also vets candidates for elections.

This, too, has consequences for the economy, as obscure laws enacted after the revolution in 1979 remain on the books, often used by ideologues or unscrupulous officials to undermine business ventures that in most other countries would be brilliant successes.

Take, for example, Sohrab Mostaghim, 28, and some of his friends, all graduates of Tehran’s best universities, who designed a treasure hunt set in the city’s most popular park. Soon, hundreds of people were happily paying the equivalent of $11 each to play the game, based on riddles and questions embedded in an app on their mobile phones.

But when they told a manager of the park what was going on, they were blindsided by his reaction.

“Instead of welcoming the extra visitors and this fun game, he pressured us, claiming our promotional video was against Islam, since at the end the brother and sister hug,” Mr. Mostaghim said. Physical contact between men and women in public is officially forbidden in Iran, but the rules are widely flouted in the larger cities.

Ultimately, the partners felt they had to shut the game down, whereupon the manager changed his tune.

“Now, he is asking us for bribes to allow us to use the park,” Mr. Mostaghim said. “We are not even sure if he will really allow us if we pay.”

The whole idea of a start-up is to embrace freedom to think and create, he said, “but we don’t have that here.”

Even established businesses that suffered during the years of sanctions are finding it difficult to recapture lost customers. For Bahram Shahriyari, 58, the prospect of lifting international sanctions after the nuclear deal was a faint light at the end of what had become a dark tunnel.

Until the sanctions were imposed, he had owned a business providing parts and components for new and used vehicles made by Peugeot-Citroën of France, one of the most prominent foreign brands in the country. At its peak just four years ago, his company had 400 employees and even exported parts to France.

“But the sanctions and mismanagement of our leaders was neck-breaking,” Mr. Shahriyari said. His principal customer, an Iranian state-owned automotive company, Iran Khodro, stopped placing orders because it was having trouble selling cars. Before long, his checks started bouncing, he said, and he told employees that he could no longer pay their wages.

Peugeot-Citroën has now re-entered the market, restarting an existing joint venture but dealing only with Iran Khodro. For Mr. Shahriyari, who lost his most valuable employees and customers and still cannot obtain financing, it is far too late.

“A contact, an ambassador for Iran, once told me, ‘You have to pay the price for the nuclear advancement of our country,’” he said. “Believe me, I did.”

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