‘Hamster’ crypto craze sweeps Iran, highlighting economic distress ahead of presidential election


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In the sweltering heat of early June, cab drivers and bikers in Tehran, Iran, are glued to their mobile phones while waiting at red lights. Pedestrians, too, are engrossed in their screens. The source of their intense focus is the “Hamster Kombat” app, which has become a symbol of hope in the face of Iran’s severe economic challenges.

Amid a broader crypto craze, the rise of this app underscores a harsh reality for the Islamic Republic as it approaches a crucial presidential election to replace the late President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. The country grapples with Western sanctions, rampant inflation, and high unemployment. Despite candidates’ promises to revive the economy, many Iranians are turning to this app, hoping it might eventually bring them financial relief, even though they know little about its creators.

“It’s a sign of desperation, honestly,” says Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at the Miaan Group and an expert on Iran. “People are clinging to any glimmer of hope that might transform into something valuable.”

In the wake of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal collapse, those able to do so have invested in hard assets such as property, art, vehicles, and precious metals, as Iran’s currency, the rial, has plummeted. The exchange rate, once 32,000 rials to the dollar, now hovers near 580,000 rials per dollar, severely devaluing savings and retirement funds.

The economic strain is palpable. Prices of fruits and vegetables have surged by 50% in the past year, meat prices by 70%, and shared taxi fares in Tehran have almost doubled. Even Metro fares, the most affordable option for city commuters, have risen by about 30%.

“Since morning, I had three visitors to my shop, none of them bought anything,” laments Mohammad Reza Tabrizi, a clothing shop owner in downtown Tehran. “Most customers prefer buying from peddlers or pre-owned items in other places.”

In this desperate environment, public interest in cryptocurrency and mobile games like “Hamster Kombat,” which offer the promise of coins, has soared. The widespread use of smartphones in Iran, coupled with relatively low mobile service costs, makes apps like this particularly attractive.

Accessed via the popular messaging app Telegram, “Hamster Kombat” functions as a clicker game where users earn points by repetitively clicking on objects or completing tasks. Users hope to gain a purported cryptocurrency associated with the game, despite it not being publicly traded.

The game’s developers, who remain anonymous, declined to answer questions about their identities or business plans in an email. They insisted they were not offering any cryptocurrency but claimed to be “educating our audience about crypto through gaming mechanics.”

Despite these assurances, the game resembles past apps that have offered cryptocurrency to Iranians, and the mere possibility of free money has driven public interest. Jokes online depict a man tapping on a gravestone like a mobile phone and another using a massage gun to rapidly click on the game’s hamster.

However, this fascination has drawn the attention of Iranian authorities. Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, deputy chief of Iran’s military, described the app as part of the West’s “soft war” against Iran’s theocracy, aimed at distracting voters ahead of the election.

“One of the features of the soft war by the enemy is the ‘Hamster’ game,” Sayyari said, theorizing that the game was popularized to divert attention from presidential candidates’ plans. “Then the people fail to choose the best candidates,” he added, echoing concerns from hard-line pundits.

The state-run daily JameJam warned that the game’s popularity signifies a “dream of becoming rich overnight and gaining wealth without effort,” spanning various professions from builders to university students. The newspaper criticized the shift away from hard work and entrepreneurship toward quick, effortless gains, while not addressing the economic conditions driving interest in the app.

The app also caught the attention of Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a 97-year-old Shiite scholar known for his fatwas. Shirazi, from the holy city of Qom, called cryptocurrency “the source of many abuses” and advised against using apps like “Hamster Kombat” involving bitcoin.

Concerns about the game are not limited to Iran. Ukrainian authorities, amidst their conflict with Russian-armed forces, warned that user data stored in Russia could pose risks. Additionally, Iranian consumers often face malware risks due to limited access to legal software and legitimate app stores, along with the threat of state-sponsored hackers targeting political dissidents.

As Iran’s presidential campaign progresses, candidates are utilizing platforms like Instagram, X, and Telegram—despite previous bans—highlighting the complex interplay between technology, economy, and politics in the nation.


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