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For a few days, life in Iran seemed to stand still: Iranians were glued to their TV screens, smartphones, or if they didn’t have anything else to their radios. Everyone was following the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Now that a deal has been reached, Iranians are rejoicing, expecting that this new “peace with the world” will help them solve economic problems and improve living standards. After decades of isolation, the taste of hope is unbelievably sweet. But above all, Iranians believe that the world powers have shown their country due respect.
Just a couple years ago, the thought that Iran might never reach a deal was common not just among political analysts but among most Iranians. When former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tough rhetoric destroyed Iran’s already strained relations with the West and brought on the harshest sanctions in the country’s history, most Iranians lost hope: “Sanctions? Bring them on, things can’t get any worse!”
Even during the 2013 presidential campaign, Iranians were skeptical at first that then-candidate Hassan Rouhani would be able to remedy the situation. Rouhani was considered a conservative who was close to the fundamentalists. But during one debate, he made a statement that will go down in history books: “It is important that the centrifuges keep spinning, but it is even more important for people’s lives to run smoothly. Diplomacy cannot be limited to words—it also requires action.”
This was a jab at Saeed Jalili, Iran’s nuclear negotiator at the time and another presidential candidate. Jalili was known for making provocative statements about Islam and about unholy Western organizations. He spent most of his time lecturing the United Nations rather than taking real action.
Following the disappointments and the harsh crackdown on opposition protests in 2009, many Iranians resolved never to take part in elections again. And yet Rouhani’s words appeared to have a magical effect on the public. He promised relief from the sanctions. Iranians took him at his word, and it has paid off for them.
As soon as he was able, President Rouhani appointed Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Rouhani then stepped back and gave complete control over the important mission to the charming, energetic and impeccably educated Zarif—now a star in Iran and a symbol of its effort to repair ties with the West.
Crucially, Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has repeatedly (if cautiously) expressed support for Rouhani and Zarif’s strategy. This was already clear by the time preliminary talks started in Lausanne. No change in Iran would have been possible without Khamenei’s approval. The Iranians realized that they and their country finally had a chance.
Naturally, certain conservatives in Iran found the very idea of nuclear negotiations with the West unacceptable. And the share of conservatives in Iranian parliament and executive branch is far from insignificant. Many have made a fortune by creating ways to get around the sanctions, so they had financial as well as ideological motivations to resist Rouhani’s political plan.
While President Hassan Rouhani focused on Iran’s top foreign policy concern, his opponents mounted attacks against him inside the country. Media censorship reached levels unheard of even under Ahmadinejad; new restrictions on higher education, hijabs, and women’s rights were introduced every month; the largely-forgotten morality police took to the streets again; and religious punishments such as public flogging became more and more frequent. The conservatives are well aware how much Iranians hate all of this, and their actions were intended to send a message: your darling president is useless, he cannot even help you at home, how could he possibly deal with sanctions?
Such an approach worked several years ago, when it was used to subvert popular support for former president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami. But this time the Iranians had a much better understanding that getting rid of sanctions meant economic rehabilitation, the end of isolation, and consequently a weakening of the conservatives. They were willing to put up with harsher domestic restrictions while Rouhani and Zarif were busy with nuclear negotiations. It was as if the Iranian people had a tacit deal with their president: we will dial down our expectations and we will not complain, all in the hope that Iran can be freed from the shackles of sanctions.
Coverage of the nuclear talks by Iranian press and online media outlets was surprisingly permissive throughout. Both conservatives and those who actively supported the negotiations had an opportunity to be heard. It was further proof that in this case, the interests of the government (i.e. Ayatollah Khamenei) and the people happened to align.
During the last week of negotiations in Vienna, Iranians couldn’t tear themselves away from the developments. Iranian state television didn’t cover the talks, but its audience is limited to at most 30% of the population, mostly residents of remote villages. Most Iranians relied on BBC Farsi, Manoto (a Persian satellite channel), and of course the Internet. Despite the filters, hundreds of thousands of people were posting on Twitter and exchanging messages via the smartphone apps Viber or Telegram. The stock exchange market was paralyzed, Iranians stopped planning their vacations, and the work of travel agencies and all other businesses reliant on foreign currency operations ground to a halt. The situation changed with every passing minute; the exchange rate of the Iranian Rial and the oil price fluctuated depending on the latest news.
Few in Iran slept on the night of July 13. Everyone wondered why no official announcement had been made about the deal despite the clear deadline. There were concerns that perhaps the negotiations had fallen through at the last moment—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the subject of many a political cartoon, was at the top of the list of those to blame. The young people of Tehran drove around the city in the hope that the announcement would soon be made and they would be able to pile out and celebrate in the streets. The Iranian police said in advance that it would “ensure the safety” of those celebrating and would not intervene, provided that nobody “disturbed the public order.” News of the deal came only on the morning of July 14, which happens to be Ayatollah Khamenei’s birthday. He congratulated the negotiating team warmly on their success—yet another good sign.
Festivities were not called off, they were merely postponed. Dancing, chanting, and honking filled the streets of the Iranian capital on the evening of July 14, as soon as the day’s 40ºC heat had subsided. And the Iranians are just warming up: the real celebration will start when Foreign Minister Zarif returns to the country. He is already being hailed as a new Amir Kabir, the reform-minded minister who greatly contributed to Iran’s modernization in the 19th century.
President Rouhani has essentially secured himself another presidential term. First, however, Iran will hold parliamentary elections. Iranians consider the current, very conservative parliament one of the worst in history. The conservatives will not leave the stage entirely, but after these latest developments they will have to make room for others. And if parliament has enough reformers, it will be able to achieve significant change.
Iranians are rejoicing because they had gotten fed up—fed up with economic stagnation; fed up with the undeserved, negative image of themselves as the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism; and fed up with being talked down to by the global community and addressed with the language of force and sanctions.
Certainly Iran welcomes economic growth and increased investment, the strengthening of the national currency, a return to the world banking system, the opportunity to buy modern airplanes, equipment, and thousands of other items, and the development of tourism. However, the Iranian people are most happy about the fact that the world has shown Iran some respect. The problem was resolved not through threats and orders, but through diplomatic negotiations with leading world powers. Iran and its people were able to keep their dignity, and this will serve as one of the key guarantees that Iran will fulfill all of the obligations it took on in the future.
Maryam Khamedi (name changed), Iranian journalist and political analyst, Tehran
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