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Some Iranians hopeful that nuclear deal could relieve sanctions’ economic bite

January 16, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
On the streets of Tehran, how are citizens reacting to the completion of an interim deal over Iran's nuclear program? Hari Sreenivasan talks to William Brangham of NewsHour Weekend about the pressure on President Rouhani and what role economic sanctions have played in fueling diplomatic negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: Earlier this week, Iran and world powers moved one step closer toward a final agreement on the country’s nuclear program.

Tonight, we have an inside look at how negotiations with the West are playing inside the Islamic state.

Hari Sreenivasan has more.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Correspondent William Brangham is in Iran this week on a reporting trip. We caught up with him earlier today.

William, welcome.

So, this week, Iran and world powers worked out the technical details of the interim deal over its nuclear program. What has been the reaction on the streets of Tehran?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, Hari, the deal has been received relatively well so far this week.

In fact, members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who for weeks have been criticizing the negotiations and the deal, offered what was considered mild praise this week. So that was considered a bit of a step forward.

That said, President Obama set off a bit of a diplomatic tussle this week when he, in his statement on Sunday describing the deal, referred to it as — quote — “dismantling” some part of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which is a charge the Iranians completely reject. The Foreign Ministry rejected that statement.

And earlier this week, President Rouhani felt compelled to give a speech where he said that the deal, in fact, represented a — quote — “surrender” of the Western powers to Iran’s will. So there seems to be a good deal of domestic political posturing going on to put the best face on this deal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, here in the U.S., President Obama seeking a little breathing room from lawmakers who are threatening new sanctions. What kind of pressure is on President Rouhani right now?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Well, there is a great deal of pressure on President Rouhani in these ongoing negotiations.

You have to remember there’s a large percentage of the Iran Parliament that would very much like to see Rouhani fail. And so they are looking for any signs that he is capitulating or showing signs of weakness that they can then hold up and say, see, he’s failing the country.

At the very same time, Iran’s supreme leader, who thus far has given Rouhani a good deal of leeway in negotiating this deal, nonetheless last week gave again a very fiery speech where he referred to the United States as the great Satan and warned his negotiators that they cannot — quote — “trust the smiles of their enemy” — so a lot of pressure on the president here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How do most Iranians view these negotiations with world powers? Are they hopeful that this will improve their country’s situation?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I do think there is a sense of hope among some Iranians about this deal.

It’s important to remember that Rouhani was in no small part elected to do exactly this. He campaigned on a platform of reducing Iran’s isolation in the world, of negotiating with the Western powers, of trying to reduce the sanctions and trying to improve the economy.

So you could argue that he is absolutely delivering on his promise. And so for the people who put him into office, yes, I think there’s a genuine sense of hope that these negotiations will finally bear fruit and improve the economy. Ordinary Iranians we have spoken to in the last few days haven’t seen those results yet, but they’re certainly hoping that they are going to come.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So the U.S. administration credits these so-called crippling sanctions in bringing Iran to the negotiating table. You have been on the ground for a few days now. What is the economic situation like there? How severe are these sanctions to average Iranians?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: As a first-time visitor to Iran, it’s not immediately apparent how sanctions have impacted the city and this country.

Tehran is a bustling, thriving city. There’s people out on the streets. The stores are full of produce and fresh food, household goods. But, in other ways, in ways that may be not quite so visible, it’s clear the sanctions have bitten very hard into Iran’s economy.

Unemployment is very high. Inflation is very high. And so at the very time that prices for goods have gone through the roof, the value of the local currency, the money, the rial, that people use here to buy those goods has plummeted. So it is very, very difficult for middle-class Iranians to buy the necessities of life.

A few days ago, we spoke with a shopkeeper who we just walked into his store, and we started talking with him. And he told us that he bought his business about two to three years ago, right at the time that the most recent set of sanctions had been implemented. And he said that the price of the goods that he needs to import to sell in his store had gone way up, at the very same time that his customers’ ability to buy those goods had gone really far down.

And so there’s really evidence everywhere in that sense that the sanctions have really hurt the Iranian economy. And they are in a large way what is driving the urge for these ongoing negotiations to try to reduce those sanctions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: William Brangham, NewsHour Weekend correspondent, thanks for joining us.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Thanks very much, Hari.

GWEN IFILL: We will have more of William’s reporting from Iran next week.