On the side of one of Tehran’s traffic-clogged freeways, among giant murals portraying the heroes and martyrs of the Iranian revolution, a lurid billboard warns that the “nuclear issue is just an excuse” for America, Israel, Britain and other hostile powers to try to undermine the Islamic Republic’s independence and sovereignty. “If we give way on that, they will come up with many other excuses,” the text in Farsi reads.
Now that the marathon nuclear negotiations are finally approaching their end in Vienna on Tuesday, many Iranians still heed this suspicious message. Few, however, doubt that a deal will be done and sanctions will be eased, and that it will mark a new era in relations with the US and with the west, 36 years after Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah and shook the Middle East. Many hope and believe that Iran’s economy, and perhaps its complex political system, will be deeply marked by the change.
“It is a big moment,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, a prominent reformist academic. “In years to come people will refer to this agreement as a landmark in modern Iranian history. It is of crucial importance that Iran has said: ‘OK, we are going to trust the west.’ If we reach an agreement with the US – the Great Satan – on an issue that divided us for more than a decade, it will be a huge transformation.”
The impending deal looks like a triumph for Hassan Rouhani, elected president two years ago in place of the divisive Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who ransacked government coffers to fund populist projects at home and outraged the world with his Holocaust denial. Still, everyone knows that Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, have the blessing of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that the regime desperately needs the agreement.
With a week to go in nuclear talks, Iran wants focus on sanctions relief
Opponents warn of dire and far-reaching implications. “A segment of our political elite and intellectuals who believe Iran needs closer relations with the west think the 1979 revolution needs to finish,” said Foad Ezzadi, a Tehran University professor who describes himself as a “principalist” – or hardliner, in less elevated language. “They believe, as Henry Kissinger put it, that Iran needs to be a country, not a cause, … but if the agreement violates our principles there will be a backlash, not just from men in turbans but ordinary people who have a sense of national pride.”
The mood in this camp seems defensive, because Khamenei, the author of the billboard warning, has thrown his authority behind the negotiators while he denounces the US in the old language of confrontation.
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Men in Tehran read a newspaper with a front-page picture of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
Risks clearly lie ahead. Hardliners and reformists agree that sanctions relief, one of the most hotly contested elements of the Vienna negotiations, will not be a magic formula. Benefits may take years to filter through to the millions of people suffering the effects of joblessness and inflation, now down from its peak but still running at a painful 15%. There is also anger at powerful individuals and institutions, especially the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which controls assets ranging from telecoms to oilfields and has benefited financially from monitoring and exploiting loopholes in the sanctions regime.
Complaints are rife, too, about shoddy imports, bartered for oil, that compete with local produce. “If the government compromises with the west, then conditions will be better here,” predicted Ehsan, a 70-year-old driver who was quick to hark back to the halcyon days under the shah. “But they have told us so many lies. We don’t know what they are going to do. I talk to customers all day and they all complain about the cost of living. I used to be able to buy a big glass of beer and a bowl of pistachios for a few tumans. Now I earn 60-70,000 a day and I need to spend it all on the car.”
Bullet-riddled cars and lush gardens: Iran’s memorial to its ‘nuclear martyrs’
The wealthy are insulated. The marble-floored Palladium shopping centre in Zafaraniyeh in leafy north Tehran could be in an upmarket suburb of any European or US city. Not every high-end western brand is available, but there is a Starbucks lookalike and a sushi bar, and French cheeses in the supermarket. Smuggling from Dubai means there is little that cannot be found for the right price, including alcohol. The number of Porsches on the streets has become an eye-catching symbol of conspicuous consumption and a yawning socio-economic gap.
“It has not been hell under sanctions and it will not be heaven afterwards,” said Mohamed Ali Vakil, the editor of the reformist newspaper Ebtekar. On one calculation, sanctions are to blame for only 30% of Iran’s economic difficulties. The rest are put down to mismanagement and profligacy in the Ahmadinejad era. “There is an ocean of expectations that is being held back by the dam of sanctions,” Vakil said. “If we control carefully how the dam is opened then that ocean will be the water of life, but if it is not done carefully there will be a flood that could wash everyone away.”
Job creation is crucial, as is foreign investment to develop an economy that has contracted because of a lack of contact with the outside world, while falling energy prices have hit state revenues hard. Even in the best hotels in Tehran, bills have to be paid with thick wads of cash, and there are official and black market rates for foreign exchange, with moneychangers doing brisk business on the capital’s Ferdowsi Square.
Politically, a nuclear agreement is seen as a boost for the reformists, in the sense that it will be the result of cooperation rather than confrontation. It is also conventional wisdom, however, that hardliners will try to regain lost ground by cracking down in the cultural and social spheres.
Worrying signs of this are already evident, for example in an effort to stop women attending volleyball matches. “If the nuclear issue is resolved there will be no excuse for this pressure and it will help freedom of expression,” Vakil said. Hossein Sheikholislam, an adviser to the speaker of parliament, agreed – but only up to a point. “Yes, a nuclear agreement strengthens Rouhani,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can ignore the other camp.”
Saeed Leylaz is an economist who was jailed after the “stolen election” of 2009 gave Ahmadinjead a second term and left the opposition Green movement leaders under house arrest, accused of trying to foment a “velvet revolution”, as the hardliners called it. Leylaz is now looking ahead to parliamentary elections next March and hopes to see a shift in the balance of power, despite the certainty that many candidates will be disqualified. “The political temperature is going to rise,” he said. “Rouhani will face a lot of problems once the celebrations are over.”
Still the superlatives abound. “This is so big that the timing is just a detail,” said Majid Zamani, an investment banker. “We are at the point of no return in terms of even a limited peace between this country and the west. It is so big that it doesn’t matter whether it takes another year or two to be able to resume business.”
Zibakalam acknowledged there was a danger of wishful thinking as the moment nears in Vienna. Yes, first the deal has to be done. That will indeed be the end of a long and difficult chapter, full of historic resonances for Iranians and Americans alike. But a new one will open at once.
This article by Ian Black, originally appeared in the Uk’s Guardian newspaper