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How Iranians perceive the interim nuclear deal and future prospects

December 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
David Ignatius of The Washington Post recently traveled to Iran where he talked to both sides of the debate on the country's negotiations with the West. He joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the perceptions of hard-liners, pragmatists and the general public, plus what challenges lie ahead for crafting a comprehensive deal.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Iran, the United States and other world powers met today in Geneva to hash out the practical details of the deal signed last month, which suspends key elements of the Islamic state’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

Much has been reported about objections to the deal and threats of new sanctions by some in the U.S. and some American allies. Much less is known about how the interim agreement and prospects for a full agreement are playing inside Iran.

Tonight, Jeffrey Brown takes a closer look at that side of the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Ignatius, foreign affairs columnist for The Washington Post, recently returned from a reporting trip to Iran, where he looked at perceptions and opinions surrounding the country’s negotiations with the West. He joins me now.

And welcome back, David.

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Thank you.

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JEFFREY BROWN: You saw a lively debate within Iran about this deal. Explain what you saw. And how did the sides divide?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I was in Iran for four days, not a long time, so I don’t want to pretend that I have any kind of comprehensive view.

But I did manage to see representatives of the most pragmatic, pro-negotiation wing, the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and also one of the hardest-line people close to Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, a man named Hossein Shariatmadari, who’s the editor of Kayhan, which is the big conservative newspaper.

These two spoke about the negotiations over the nuclear issue with the United States and other countries in such different terms. And what was fascinating to me was the pragmatist, Javad Zarif, and the hard-liner, Shariatmadari, each spoke as if they were talking for the supreme leader.

Both can’t be true.

JEFFREY BROWN: They both — they both — now, both cannot be true.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Both cannot be true.


DAVID IGNATIUS: And so I had a sense, some of this I’m sure is a show for the West, you know. Two factions, it is a classic negotiating technique.

But I think there are real and fundamental differences here.

JEFFREY BROWN: You reported that some hard-liners believe that Zarif even misrepresented the enrichment part of the deal to…


DAVID IGNATIUS: I was told that specifically by Shariatmadari, the hard-line editor of Kayhan, who said to me — when I asked him, why did you agree to the interim deal if you think it is such a bad idea, said, well, the foreign minister, Zarif, called President Rouhani, Hassan Rouhani, the new president, in the middle of the night from Geneva and gave him an account of what was in the deal.

And he on that basis wrote a letter to the supreme leader, Khamenei, and he then said, this gentleman wasn’t correct in what he said, specifically on the question of whether the deal provides Iran with a right to enrich uranium, as it has always claimed it must have for any deal. And the hard-liner said, this deal doesn’t provide us with the right to enrich.

I thought as I listened to this that he was perhaps laying the ground for the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, eventually, if he decides that Iran has not got it wanted, to renounce the interim deal and say it was misrepresented to me by the foreign minister.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Rouhani, of course, got a lot attention for what has been taken as far more conciliatory views and statements certainly than his predecessor.

But the question that you are raising, and certainly for policy-makers, is how strong still is this hard-line faction?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I think there’s no way for any of us to know.

I asked this hard-line person close to the supreme leader, do you think compromise with the West is possible on a nuclear deal? And he answered directly, no, I don’t think it is. I think this is a matter of identity.

We don’t know if the supreme leader himself believes that. Clearly, Rouhani, the president, doesn’t. He authorized these negotiations. He told me back in September when I interviewed him in New York at the U.N. General Assembly he thought this interim deal could be done in three months. Well, it was done even more quickly than he thought. I thought at the time it couldn’t possibly be so.

So I think he sees that ending sanctions, getting Iran out from under this cloud is in the country’s interest. Whether he can pull the hard-liners and the Revolutionary Guard with him, we don’t know.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about popular opinion and how easy or difficult it is to gauge?

You write about what you call a fatigue in the country.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Again, I was there for a short time.

I don’t want to overstate what I know. But, certainly, you sense a kind of shadow hanging over Iran. This is a country that is on the verge of being a China-like developing economy, growing very rapidly. I talked to four different economists who talked about 10 percent growth rates being possible in the future. I met Iranian scientists who had ideas for new companies and products. So, they are poised and ready…


JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me. Is that if the sanctions…


JEFFREY BROWN: If sanctions are off?

DAVID IGNATIUS: This is impossible unless sanctions are lifted.


DAVID IGNATIUS: So here is a country that sees this incredibly promising future, but won’t get there unless it can make a nuclear deal to take sanctions away.

So we talk about crippling sanctions. I have to tell you, honestly, driving around Tehran, talking to people, going to business establishments, you don’t sense that this is an economy that is crippled. It’s functioning. Its people are doing business.

What is crippled is its future. The opportunity that Iran has to be the kind of country it wants, that it can be in terms of its human capital won’t happen unless they made a deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: You used a colorful line, which was, Tehran seemed a city caught somewhere between Pyongyang and Los Angeles.

DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, it’s a strange feeling.

In many ways, you are reminded of Los Angeles in Tehran. It looks similar. It’s built against a mountain. This was winter, so it was clear, but usually smog hangs over the city. Iranians are very freewheeling people, like Americans. It is a very cultured country. The worst thing an Iranian can say about another is that this person is uncultivated.

At the same time that it’s modern and Western-like, it has an authoritarian clerical regime that does make you think of North Korea, where you feel there’s this lid on the country, on its people, on its future. And that sense of being between what they are and what they might be is the strongest feeling I took away.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, so, in the meantime, negotiations restarted even today on technical issues. So what is next?

 DAVID IGNATIUS: So what is next is working out the details of whether Iran will make an offer in — for a comprehensive deal that, in the view of the United States and its negotiating partners, reverses the nuclear program, so that Iran shows the world that it will be a peaceful nuclear power. Only — it will have civilian nuclear energy only.

And they’re going to have to offer quite a lot. They are going to have to shut down a lot of centrifuges. They are going to probably have to close their heavy water reactor at Arak for that deal to be acceptable.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Ignatius of The Washington Post, thanks so much.