Reaching Out To The West, Iran's Leader Wins Support At Home

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on October 8, 2013 8:55 am

Iran's President Hasan Rouhani has been well-received in the U.S. this week with his United Nations speech and other remarks that held out the possibility of the U.S. and Iran mending relations ruptured more than 30 years ago.

As we've reported on Parallels, Rouhani still faces plenty of skeptics, though most U.S. media coverage has been positive. But how have his comments been received in Iran, where the country's economy has been hard-hit by Western sanctions?

Pretty well, it seems, according to Thomas Erdbrink, The New York Times correspondent in Tehran. He told NPR's Morning Edition that Iranians were "looking at these talks with lots of anticipation and people are really happy to hear the reaction of the Western countries was so positive."

The U.S. and European countries want a verifiable deal that ensures that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons. Iran, in turn, wants to remove the sanctions that have greatly reduced the country's oil exports and contributed to high unemployment and inflation.

"The impact of those crushing sanctions affects [Iranians] with every step they take in their daily life," Erdbrink said.

"Parents who want to see their children have a better future, [they are] waiting for them to get married, to buy a house," he said. "They see a whole generation just withering away under the incredible force of these sanctions, which is just taking away their future, taking away any prospect of a better life."

The U.S. and Iran have had several false starts over the past two decades as tentative moves to rebuild a relationship have collapsed and given way to renewed recriminations.

In the past, Iranian hard-liners were sometimes blamed for undermining these efforts. But this time, Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is considered a hard-liner, is supporting Rouhani's moves, Erdbrink says.

"This means that for the first time [since Iran's 1979 revolution], Iran's leadership, which is always very ambiguous and often double-sided, is talking with one voice," Erdbrink says.

If Iran's negotiations with the U.S. and the West make progress, hard-liners may try to intervene, he says. But for now, "the message from Iran's top leadership is, 'Leave these people alone, let them do their job, let's try to get these sanctions lifted.' "

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Now, of course the people of Iran have a lot at stake in these conversations and in the diplomatic outreach of their new president. For the view from Tehran we've called New York Times bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink. Thomas, welcome back to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thank you very much for having me.

GREENE: So have Iranians been paying close attention to what's unfolding at the U.N. this week?

ERDBRINK: Well, naturally they have, David, because we mustn't forget that the impact of those crushing sanctions actually affects them with every step they take in their daily lives. You know, parents who want to see their children have a better future, waiting for them to get married, to buy a house, they see a whole generation just withering away under the incredible force of these sanctions, which is just taking away their futures and taking away any prospects of a better life. So these people, besides from inflation and besides from the huge unemployment figures and the loss in value of Iran's national currency, they are really hoping for a change in their life, a change for the better. They want to see these talks succeed because they feel that if they don't, there is literally no future for their children, for themselves, for Iran, they say. So everybody's been looking at these talks with lots of anticipation, and really people are very happy to hear that the reaction of the Western countries was so positive towards Mr. Zarif.

GREENE: People have a lot at stake. They're hoping that this might bring an end to these sanctions. But do they have confidence that their new president, Hasan Rouhani, can actually pull something off when, you know, as you've written, he answers to Iran's Supreme Leader and the hardliners who have never seemed that crazy about the idea of a better relationship with the West.

ERDBRINK: Well, the big, big difference with earlier attempts in the past by Iranian politicians reaching out to the United States is that this time Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, actually backs the talks, actually supports the talks. Mr. Rouhani, in an interview with NBC, very clearly said I have the full authorization of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

This means that for the first time in history, Iran's leadership, which is always very ambiguous and often double-sided, is talking with one voice, one voice to the world; they want to make clear that we are ready to deal with the United States on the nuclear issue, possibly on Syria, and some people tell me on the sidelines, hey, if these talks work out, maybe we can talk about other things as well.

It's natural that people expect Iran's hardliners to try and obstruct the talks at some point, to try and prevent mainly at this point Mr. Zarif from succeeding. Maybe they'll find some dirt on him. Maybe they'll find some skeletons in the closet, but for now the message from Iran's top leadership is leave these people alone. Let them do their job. Let's try and fix - you know, let's try and get these sanctions lifted.

GREENE: Thomas, let me ask you about one thing that made a lot of headlines here in the United States and that was all the speculation about whether President Rouhani and President Obama would meet or shake hands, which never happened. Were Iranians following all of that?

ERDBRINK: Well, people were really anticipating such a meeting. They were looking out for it because they felt that this could be a kind of crowbar into the negotiation, to fast forward those talks and to get the sanctions lifted very, very quickly. One newspaper, a reformist newspaper called Sharaf(ph), which means east, actually ran a headline saying perhaps another time, with underneath two pictures of President Obama and President Rouhani.

Well, this sort of embodies the desire of common people to see this issue solved as soon as possible.

GREENE: And I'm curious. How are most Iranians getting their news?

ERDBRINK: Well, Iran is not a North Korea. Iran is not an Afghanistan. This is a country which is highly connected to the Internet. Everybody here owns satellite channels and the wave of cheap travel hasn't passed by all the Iranian people. People travel. People conversate. People make phone calls. Yes, the Internet is filtered and millions of sites are blocked, including Facebook and Twitter, but people have software to kind of bypass those filters.

The satellite channels at this point have 50 channels operating from outside of Iran, while speaking in Farsi and informing the Iranian people of another view of that of the state television. All in all, people are very well informed across the board and those remarks by Mr. Kerry will be debated at lunchtime here in a couple of hours, I'm sure, all across the country.

GREENE: We've been speaking to New York Times Tehran bureau chief Thomas Erdbrink. Thanks so much for the time.

ERDBRINK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.