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Iranians hopeful diplomacy with Washington could stem soaring inflation, unrest

Iran was the target of former President Donald Trump's so-called "maximum pressure campaign," which aimed at crippling Tehran's economy. Now, President Joe Biden is signaling a return to a nuclear deal, but demands an end to extended nuclear work. Special correspondent Reza Sayah details how this development is playing out in Iran.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We turn to Iran, the target of former President Trump's so-called maximum pressure campaign aimed at crippling Tehran's economy.

    Now President Biden is signaling a return to a nuclear deal, but also demanding an end to extended nuclear work.

    Special correspondent Reza Sayah tells us how this is playing out in Iran.

  • Reza Sayah:

    When spring arrives in Iran, so does Nowruz, the Iranian new year. Tehran's Tadry (ph) Square bustles with shoppers, haggling for traditional symbols of Nowruz, fish for life, eggs for fertility, flowers for rebirth and renewal.

    But what's hidden beneath the holiday festivities here is stress and hardship. U.S. sanctions are still choking an Iranian economy already hampered by corruption and mismanagement.

    Fruit stand owner Behzad Mousavi says celebrating the new year is harder than ever.

  • Behzad Mousavi (through translator):

    This was the worst year, in my opinion, not just for me, but for most people. This was the worst year.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Samira and her husband, Vahid (ph), say the cost of living and raising two girls has never been so high.

  • Samira (through translator):

    During the past one or two years, prices have tripled and quadrupled. We're doing our best to get by, but we're not happy.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Despite the celebration that comes with the Persian new year, there's little question that the U.S. sanctions and the maximum pressure campaign of former President Donald Trump has made millions of Iranians suffer.

    There's soaring inflation. Almost everything costs more. The value of the Iranian currency has plummeted. And some statistics show more than 1.5 million Iranians have fallen into poverty.

    But beyond causing pain for ordinary Iranians, many here say the maximum pressure campaign has done little else.

  • Behzad Mousavi (through translator):

    It put a lot of pressure on people, but, in my view, the U.S. didn't get any results.

  • Donald Trump:

    The United States will withdraw.

  • Reza Sayah:

    The maximum pressure campaign against Iran began in 2018, when Mr. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA. In the agreement, signed under then President Barack Obama, the U.S. and world powers agreed to lift economic sanctions against Iran.

    In return, Iran rolled back its nuclear program, deemed a threat by the West. Mr. Trump said the deal wasn't enough. Sanctions and economic pressure, he said, would rein in what Washington calls Iran's destabilizing behavior in the region and curb its missile program.

    But, today, Iran still funds, trains, and sometimes commands militias and proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, some accused of attacking U.S. interests and allies in the region.

    Iran also continues to expand its ballistic missile program, showing off its latest missiles at this military exercise earlier this year.

    Ray Takeyh was a State Department official working on Iran under President Obama, now at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a fervent opponent of the deal.

  • Ray Takeyh:

    The administration has promised that it will revisit critical aspects of the Iran nuclear deal, particularly expiration of the sunset clauses, the ballistic missiles that were excluded from the original deal, and Iran's so-called malign activity.

  • Mohammad Marandi:

    Trump's maximum pressure campaign failed utterly.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Tehran-based political analyst says Mohammad Marandi says Iran's missiles are a necessary deterrent, not a pressure tactic against Washington.

    Aren't they saying, if you don't come back to the nuclear deal, this is what you can expect?

  • Mohammad Marandi:

    When the United States surrounds Iran with military bases, then the Iranians will send messages through its military maneuvers that one wrong move, and you're in deep trouble. That's deterrence.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Some analysts say the maximum pressure campaign was also designed to trigger popular unrest and regime collapse, something the Trump administration had denied.

    In 2019, a sudden spike in fuel prices did spark nationwide protests. A deadly crackdown followed. A few weeks later, the protests ended. Today, there's little indication that Iranians have an appetite for an uprising.

    The maximum pressure campaign did succeed in intensifying the rift between Iran's moderates, led by President Hassan Rouhani, who made the nuclear deal a centerpiece of his 2017 reelection campaign, and anti-U.S. conservative factions who were long suspicious of a pact with Washington.

    Abolfazl Amouei is one of those conservatives. He was part of the diplomatic team led by Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that negotiated the nuclear deal.

    Today, he is among scores of newly elected conservative lawmakers who now dominate Iran's Parliament. They call for a more confrontational approach to Washington. Last month, they threatened to bring legal action against President Rouhani, accusing him of circumventing Iranian law in his effort to restore the deal.

    But Amouei claims the two sides have now buried the hatchet and are united in their demands against Washington.

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    Nowadays, there's a very good cooperation between the administration and the Parliament.

  • Reza Sayah:

    So, no conflict between you and the president?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    Nowadays, there is no conflict.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Nowadays?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    Yes.

  • Reza Sayah:

    In its latest report, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog said Iran's stockpile of enriched uranium is roughly 15 times more than the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.

    In December, lawmakers voted to further expand Iran's nuclear program and scale back some nuclear inspections.

    President Joe Biden says he's open to restoring the nuclear deal. Was it the right timing to pass a law restricting IAEA inspections?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    If we want to explain the logic of this law, it was designed to make pressure against United States and other Western countries to implement through their commitment to the JCPOA.

  • Reza Sayah:

    Do you think it's helping or hurting matters?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    I think that it helps us.

  • Reza Sayah:

    President Joe Biden says he's open to restoring the nuclear deal. He says he wants to talk. Why not talk with Washington?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    If they talk to us for leaving or withdrawing from the JCPOA, if they want to come back, there's no need to talk to us.

  • Ray Takeyh:

    I do think some way this is going to be worked out where the two parties will return to the table, but there's little possibility of renegotiating it on the parameters that the United States has laid out.

    So, down the road, I do think we are going to face another negotiating stalemate.

  • Reza Sayah:

    How much do you trust or mistrust the Biden administration?

  • Abolfazl Amouei:

    There is a big mistrust wall between Iran and the United States.

  • Reza Sayah:

    At a time when Iranians celebrate a season of renewal, the decades-long mistrust between Washington and Tehran still lingers, the effects of the U.S. maximum pressure campaign persist, and a nuclear deal with global implications hangs in the balance.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Reza Sayah in Tehran.

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