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Economic Isolation Weighs On Iranians; Desire Nuclear Talks Resolved


Talks between Iran and the United States have resumed. The two sides are talking after extending a deadline to reach a deal over Iran's nuclear program. Several Western powers and Iranian negotiators are feeling pressure to make a deal. Many in Congress want to limit President Obama's authority to act at all. And then there are the politics of Iran, which we'll talk about with Thomas Erdbrink, who is Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times. Welcome back to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: How large do these nuclear negotiations loom in Iranian conversations?

ERDBRINK: Well, just to paint a picture for you, I recently visited the shrine of Iran's national poet, Hafez, and outside of the shrine there are men who sell little poems and in those poems they are looking to see their future. And I spoke with two young ladies who just bought one of these poems and I asked them what do you think your future will be? And, of course, I expected something about love life or other things, but both of them said no. We want to see if there will be a nuclear deal in the future. A lot of people in Iran - lawyers, doctors, people who run bakeries - are looking for a nuclear deal. They're looking for an end to the situation.

INSKEEP: And why is it so central? Is it because it touches not just the diplomacy of the country, but also its economy?

ERDBRINK: Naturally, I mean, the Iranians have been sort of isolated for the past 35 years, but the row over the nuclear program has really isolated their economy as well. There have been sanctions, but now on top of those sanctions there is the huge drop in oil income, which means that Iran is scheduled to make even less money from their oil, which is the main source of their economic wealth. A lot of people are afraid that if these talks don't yield something that helps them at least lift the sanctions that the economy will go completely down the drain and make life even harder for normal people.

INSKEEP: So we've been following this from the U.S. side where President Obama's administration clearly wants a deal. But they're under increasing pressure from the new Republican Congress, and there is a sense among some analysts that the administration may have quite limited time. Let me ask how things look on the other side for Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected saying that he wanted a deal. Is he running out of time?

ERDBRINK: Well, he's definitely also running out of time. In Iran, the president doesn't hold as much power as President Obama does in the United States. He has to deal with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. You can, in a way, call him and his followers the Iranian version of Congress. Now, these people have been condoning the nuclear talks because they have been feeling that if they would lead to some sort of a deal that's favorable for Iran, if it would get all the sanctions lifted, as this hard-liner say, then sure, why not talk to our eternal enemy the United States and other Western powers? But if these talks are dragging on and on and turning out to be a lot more complicated than a lot of the Iranian politicians thought, they are starting to criticize President Rouhani, and, of course, the harshest criticism has come from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

INSKEEP: Is President Rouhani, though, doing anything to push back against the hard-liners or, even in some subtle way, against his own supreme leader to make sure he has room to make a deal if he can?

ERDBRINK: If he is it is very hard for him. And the Iranian president is, in many ways, lower in hierarchy than the supreme leader. But what Rouhani has been doing, he's been giving speeches. The problem is that beyond those speeches there is really not that much that he can do. President Rouhani finds him in a spot that many Iranian presidents have found themselves in - sort of cornered; trying to reach a deal that is really complicated, even if you hold all power in the country. But he's trying to reach it with very limited power.

INSKEEP: Are there people in Iran who are beginning to see the possibility of the whole cycle of the last five or six years simply coming to an end? We've had a moment of hope. Is it possible, really, still that the two sides could walk away from all of that with nothing?

ERDBRINK: It is definitely a possibility that the two sides can walk away with nothing, but, of course, one thing has changed. The ideological goal posts have been moved. Iran would never talk directly to the United States. Now, Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry are talking all the time. They took a stroll around the lake of Geneva together discussing the nuclear case. And, of course, the interests of Iran and the United States in the region are sort of running parallel because they share now suddenly a mutual enemy - the Islamic State that is fighting in Syria and in Iraq. So Iranians have the feelings that things can never return to the bad days of more sanctions, tension, the possibility of war, but at the same time, very few people would like to think of a future with no nuclear deal.

INSKEEP: Thomas Erdbrink, of The New York Times, always a pleasure talking with you.

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

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