To Iran’s leaders, solving a nuclear standoff with the West might be a question of maintaining geopolitical influence and prestige. To its ordinary citizens, it’s about money, food and jobs.
Years of tightening international sanctions, designed to counter Iranian evasion and secrecy and guarantee that Iran’s nuclear program can have no military dimension, have closed hundreds of factories and halved living standards.
No wonder, then, that the desire runs deep for negotiators to do a deal in Vienna by their self-imposed deadline of July 7.
“The textile factory where I worked for 15 years was closed last month after not being able to pay our wages for three months,” said Mohammad Seirafzadeh, 47, in the northern city of Sari.
“I am a simple worker. I don’t understand the nuclear issue or politics. If the deal will help me to find a job and feed my children, then we should have it.”
Over the last three decades, Iranians have become used to U.S. trade restrictions that meant some kinds of goods, from U.S. consumer electronics to aircraft parts, were simply unavailable.
But since 2011-12, when the United States and the European Union began restricting Iran’s ability to sell oil or conduct financial transactions abroad, the pain for many of its 76 million people has become acute.
Sharp cuts in subsidies brought about by the reduction in state revenues mean that the cost of electricity, water and natural gas has tripled since 2010, for businesses and individuals alike. Iranian media say hundreds of factories have been forced to close in Tehran province alone.
ECONOMIC OUTPUT HALVED
The International Monetary Fund estimates that per capita gross domestic product plunged to $6,500 in 2013 from $12,000 in 2012, on a purchasing-power basis.
Certainly there are many for whom Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of national pride, who say the sanctions only go to prove the West’s hostility and determination to subjugate their country.
“I don’t trust Americans and other Western governments,” said management student Moslem Aliyayi, 28, in the central city of Arak. “I am ready to sacrifice my life to protect our nuclear rights against enemies.”
But the arrival of Hassan Rouhani, the pragmatic president elected in 2013 on a promise to end Iran’s isolation and revive the economy, does appear to have brought some relief, not least because an interim nuclear agreement in November 2013 led to a easing of some sanctions.
He has received cautious support from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been prepared to compromise on the nuclear issue in the light of growing economic problems, despite his deep distrust of the United States.
Since Rouhani’s election, the official inflation rate has halved, but it is still a hefty 18 percent. Official unemployment remains around 15 percent, a figure that does not reflect the huge number of jobs that pay less than a living wage, and the gap between rich and poor is widening.
Ali Kheirkhah, 48, works as a house cleaner in the central city of Isfahan since the factory where he worked closed five months ago. Because he can no longer afford the rising cost of basic goods and rents, especially in summer when many of his clients go away and dispense with his services, he has sent his family to his home village in northern Iran.
“I have not seen my children for weeks,” he said. “Life has become so difficult. I hope it will get better as promised by Rouhani, who I voted for.”
Iran was never barred from buying food and other basic necessities under sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union. Much of its food and animal feed are imported, and many of its factories assemble goods from imported parts.
But the measures have made trade more difficult for the past two years by hindering overseas payments and the procurement of maritime insurance. Several Iranian ports remain blacklisted, which has also slowed down or even blocked many imports.
Mina Vakili is a 35-year-old teacher in the southern port city of Bandar Abbas.
“I have two children and my husband and I can just afford their basic needs. But every day prices are going up,” she said.
“I hope they sign a deal. I am not very interested in political aspects of the issue. What I want is my life and the economy to improve.”
Yet behind all the complaints, there is a growing sense of anticipation, at least in the business community, that the long wait for things to improve could soon be at an end.
“I am waiting for the deal to be signed and then I will buy things,” said Gholamali Hassani, owner of an electronics and appliance shop in the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, where hardship is as much on everyone’s lips as elsewhere.
“I think prices will drop as soon as there is a deal … Business is waiting for a deal.”
Currency traders are even refusing to trade foreign currency, especially U.S. dollars, as they await an agreement.
“As soon as the deal is signed, the rial will gain in value. The black market is holding its breath,” said Hamid, a black market dealer on Tehran’s central Ferdowsi square.
But it may be the young who invest the most hope in a successful outcome in Vienna. “We don’t want this deal to fail,” said university student Naser Dadparvar. “I am a young person who wants to be connected to the rest of the world.”