On Iran's Streets, 'Death To America' ... And Hope For A Nuclear Deal

Feb 17, 2015
Originally published on February 17, 2015 1:01 pm

At the anniversary of Iran's revolution, Iranians still chanted "Death to America." Yet many we encountered in a brief visit to the country seemed prepared to shift relations with the West.

We interviewed more than 20 people in three cities: Tehran, Isfahan and Kashan. Our talks were very far from a scientific sample. They took place in a country where citizens must speak with great care.

But the people we met in offices, in restaurants and on the streets represented a range of backgrounds and political views. They included liberals and conservatives, men and women, the young and old, the middle class and elites, people close to power and far from it.

An economist seemed almost desperate for Iran to seize the opportunities that would come with a nuclear deal that lifts economic sanctions. An investor spoke of real estate developments for which he had already laid the groundwork; he was waiting for a nuclear deal before proceeding.

A graphic designer said the burst of optimism that came after Iran's 2013 presidential election had subsided; she was ready for greater change. A craftsman hammering designs on metal vases agreed that little has improved since 2013, yet he remained quietly supportive of President Hassan Rouhani, who won that election. Rouhani has made better relations with the outside world his signature cause.

To be sure, we encountered other views. It is significant that those linked with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were the most skeptical of a nuclear deal.

Khamenei's authority exceeds that of the president, and shortly before we arrived, the supreme leader gave a speech in which he signaled openness to a deal. But he also laid out a number of explicit conditions for how the deal must be made. Iranians paid attention to this speech, and when asked about the nuclear deal, some said only that they relied on Khamenei's guidance.

So a nuclear agreement seemed very far from assured. But Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a leader of a political party linked with Khamenei, insisted that Iran had "100 percent" of the political will that was necessary.

A Tale Of Two Iranians

The range of views can be represented by the stories of two Iranains: one who's eager for a nuclear deal, and one who isn't. They work within sight of each other.

The skeptical one is Mohammad Reza Shoghi. We met him at an evocative place: the former United States Embassy, where Iranian activists seized American hostages in 1979.

Today the embassy is a base for the Basij, a revolutionary militia and political organization that is under the ultimate authority of the supreme leader. Basijis, as the members are called, are spread throughout the government and business world. And they include Shoghi, who works as a public relations specialist for the Basij.

He showed us around the main building of the embassy, which has been made into a museum. The displays inside were entirely devoted to proving the evil of the United States.

Wall posters showed dead bodies from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Nearby were documents and equipment captured in the takeover of the embassy in 1979, including machines labeled "National Security Agency."

The history Shoghi spun out in room after room is the history many Iranians have been taught, a mixture of fact and delusion. In this version the U.S. not only supported the shah of Iran, the ruler who was overthrown in 1979, but also staged the Sept. 11 attacks on itself.

A huge mural running up the walls of the central stairwell showed planes striking the twin towers; American tanks invading Iraq; Jews controlling Hollywood; and the 12th imam, a key figure in Shiite Muslim theology, returning to earth in a manner similar to that which many Christians expect of Jesus Christ.

At the end of the tour, Shoghi asked if we had any questions. Rather than dwell further on the past, I asked about the present. The supreme leader has signaled openness to a deal with America. What did Shoghi think?

Shoghi said he doubted President Obama's sincerity, and noted that past efforts to resolve the nuclear impasse were spurned.

"How should we be optimistic, given the history?" he asked.

Shoghi was speaking through an interpreter, but his answer to another question required no translation.

"Do you believe that the United States and Iran can ever be friends?" I asked.

"Nah," he replied.

Shoghi has two sons. When I asked what future he wants for them, he said he just wants Iran to be independent of Western countries.

'I Have Been Crying Within Myself'

Next to the former embassy we heard a very different view. Just across a side street, and visible over the embassy wall, is the Iran chamber of commerce. An annex next to it the holds the International Chamber of Commerce, where we found Mehdi Behkish. He's 70 years old, with a mild expression and a white goatee.

Behkish is an economist who directs Iran's chapter of the international chamber. And he is an eloquent spokesman for investing in his country.

"This is a land of opportunity," he said. "For more than 20 years or so, or 30 years, our machines have not been renewed. Our lands have not been used. Our opportunities have not been grabbed ... and because of the depreciation of our local currency, I think labor and raw material are very cheap in this country."

Of course foreign companies generally can't invest unless a nuclear deal relieves the economic sanctions. But Behkish can envision such a deal. His idea of the United States is more rounded than the one on display at the embassy, because he's lived in the U.S.

He attended Indiana University in the 1970s and graduated shortly before Iran's revolution.

The education made all the difference to Behkish, who was raised far from Iran's capital in the city of Mashhad.

"I grew up in a very poor family," he said, "and a very populated family. We were nine children and I was the eldest."

Several of his brothers became leftist political activists, but once Behkish reached Indiana, he "learned the modern situation of the capitalist world, the free market world."

He insists that world is not so foreign to Iran's rich tradition as a trading nation, astride the ancient Silk Road that ran from China to Europe.

In the decades since the 1979 revolution, Behkish has watched the market economy slowed by war, turmoil, the Islamist government and Western economic sanctions.

"I have been crying within myself sometimes, to see such huge opportunities, the benefits of which should go to the people," he said.

What if there is no final deal?

"Personally I would say that it can't be that there would be no deal because otherwise the situation cannot be understandable," he said. "I think that's so bad, so bad that I would reject it. Even I would not give a 1 percent choice for that. The other alternative would be war, so there should be a deal, sooner or later. I hope so."

Behkish thinks Iranians are optimistic that there will be a final deal — so much so that the optimism has helped Iran pull out of its devastating recession. And for Behkish it is not too early to dream.

He told us that Iran could be a major manufacturing center, a transit way to Central Asia, and a far greater producer of petrochemicals. And he is already looking forward to the moment when it could all begin — which would also be the moment that he could return to the United States for the first time since the '70s.

"When this [nuclear] deal is done, I will be in Washington in four or five months," he said. "We've got to set up a U.S.-Iran chamber of commerce."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Our colleague Steve Inskeep is just back from Iran, a country on the edge of historic change. The U.S. and other nations are negotiating a possible nuclear deal with Iran, and over the next few days, Steve will bring us snapshots from the country.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: We start this morning with two Iranians, one who is eager for a nuclear deal and one who definitely is not.

MOHAMMAD REZA SHOGHI: Salam. Welcome.

INSKEEP: We met the man who isn't in Tehran, on Taleqani Street, inside a brick-walled compound roamed by cat.

What is your name?

SHOGHI: Mohammed Reza.

INSKEEP: Mohammed Reza?

SHOGHI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: I'm Steve.

SHOGHI: Steve.

INSKEEP: This is where he works - the grounds of the former United States Embassy. It's the same compound where Iranians seized American hostages in 1979. A statue of a prisoner, a U.S. Marine, stands before the main building, his hands atop his head.

Want to go inside?

It was fitting that we came here since we visited Iran on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. That revolution overthrew a U.S.-backed ruler, and a big question in the nuclear talks is whether two nations can overcome that history. Our guide, Mohammad Reza Shoghi, works for the group known in Farsi as the Basij. That's a militia and political ordination under the ultimate authority of Iran's supreme leader. These political enforcers have turned the former embassy into a vast illustration of why they oppose the United States. Shoghi showed us the giant mural that covers the walls of the main stairwell. It starts with an image of the 9/11 attacks.

SHOGHI: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: So World Trade Center in New York actually blew up by U.S. government, he believes.

INSKEEP: Upstairs, past more scenes of death and destruction blamed on the United States, Mohammed Reza turned a combination lock on a steel door that once protected the most secure a part of the embassy.

SHOGHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "We're going into the CIA area," he said, and he signaled us to step in first. You have to step on a doormat that says down with USA. The Basij have turned the second floor into a kind of museum, an argument for the depravity of the United States. Wall posters show dead bodies from the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. The highlights, of course, are equipment captured in the take over of the embassy in 1979.

What is the machine here in the middle of the room?

SHOGHI: Telex.

INSKEEP: Telex?

SHOGHI: Telex.

INSKEEP: To send messages to and from the United States?

SHOGHI: NSA.

INSKEEP: Oh, confidential, crypto, National Security Agency. In the hallway, a glass case is filled with books of captured U.S. documents.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIPPING THROUGH PAGES)

INSKEEP: The history Shoghi spun out in room after room is history many Iranians have been taught, a mixture of fact and delusion. It shows U.S. tanks in Iraq and Jews controlling Hollywood. At last, we came to the end of the tour, and our guide asked us if we had any questions.

I have one question about now. You may know from the news that the government of Iran is close to negotiating a nuclear agreement with the United States and changing its relations with the United States. What do you think about that?

SHOGHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Mohammed Reza responded with doubts about President Obama's sincerity. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said he would go along with the deal in the making. Iran wants that deal to get out of devastating economic sanctions. But Khamenei has also expressed doubts the U.S. can make a fair deal, and it's the doubt that sticks with Mohammed Reza.

SHOGHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "How should we be optimistic," he asks, "given the history?" Mohammed Reza has two sons. When I asked what future he wants for them, he said he just wants Iran to be independent of Western countries. His answer to another question required no translation.

Do you believe that the United States and Iran can ever be friends?

SHOGHI: No.

INSKEEP: And his doubts are shared by influential conservatives we met while traveling in Iran. The editor of Kayhan, a newspaper close to Iran's supreme leader, told us the nuclear negotiations are not about Iran's nuclear program at all, just a way to entrap Iran. It will be hard to escape the history symbolized by the former U.S. Embassy, though some Iranians do see a way.

So from the courtyard of this former embassy, we can see a sign of a very different Iran just across this little street, just over the wall, is the Iran Chamber of Commerce. And in an annex next to it, the International Chamber of Commerce where we found a man with a very different view of Iran and its place in the world. We had tea in the office of International Chamber of Commerce General Secretary Mehdi Behkish. He has worked for almost 30 years right next to the former embassy.

That's an interesting location.

MEHDI BEHKISH: Is it? (Laughter). Yes.

INSKEEP: Behkish believes in making a nuclear deal, in ending economic sanctions, in rejoining the global economy. He believes all that just as fervently as our embassy tour guide does not.

BEHKISH: This is a land of opportunity. You know, for more than 20 years or so or 30 years our machinery have not been renewed, our land has not been used, our opportunities have not been grabbed, and now I think labor and other raw material are very cheap in this country.

INSKEEP: Of course foreign companies generally cannot invest in this land of opportunity as long as sanctions remain in place. And those sanctions are much on the mind of Mehdi Behkish, who is 70 years old with a mild expression and a white goatee. His vision of the United States is a bit more rounded than the one on display at the embassy because he has lived in the U.S. He attended school in my home state at Indiana University. It was a transformative experience for him in the 1970s.

BEHKISH: I was grown up in a very poor family, in a very populated family. We were nine children, and I was the eldest.

INSKEEP: Several of his brothers became leftist political activists. But in Indiana, Mehdi Behkish became an economist.

BEHKISH: I learned the modern situation of the capitalist world, as they say, or free market world.

INSKEEP: Which, he insists, is not so foreign to Iran's rich tradition as a trading nation. In the decades since the 1979 revolution, the market economy was slowed by war, turmoil, inefficient governance, and Western economic sanctions.

Has it been frustrating to you all these years to watch everything be stuck and to have such difficulty in recent years?

BEHKISH: Of course, of course. I have been crying within myself sometimes to see such huge opportunities in this country, the benefits of which should go to the people.

INSKEEP: Iran could be a bigger manufacturing center and a transit way to Central Asia and a far greater producer of petrochemicals, he says. This chamber of commerce leader is close to the administration of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. And he says optimism is growing in Iran. The business community's expectation of easing sanctions is so strong, Behkish believes that alone has helped drag Iran out of its recent devastating recession. Of course that high expectation raises another question.

What will happen if there is no deal?

BEHKISH: Personally, I would say it can't be that there would not be a deal.

INSKEEP: Because the consequences of failure, he says, are incomprehensible.

BEHKISH: I think that's so bad, so bad, even I would not put 1 percent choice for that.

INSKEEP: A less than 1 percent chance of failure because the alternative is war.

BEHKISH: So there should be a deal sooner or later. I hope sooner.

INSKEEP: I hope sooner, he says. And for this man who's lived through all the years since Iran's revolution, it is not too early to make plans.

BEHKISH: When this deal is done I may be in Washington in four or five months. We have to establish Iran-U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

INSKEEP: If he goes, it would be his first visit to the United State since the U.S. Embassy takeover back in 1979. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.