Sanctions On Iran Effect Ordinary Iranians Psyche

European Union countries are considering a ban on importing Iranian oil. That debate follows new U.S. sanctions against Iran's central bank. Writer Hooman Majd, who has recently returned from Tehran, tells Steve Inskeep that Iranians are concerned about their economy.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

In the coming months, we'll learn how the Obama administration will apply new sanctions against Iran. We'll also see how Iran responds. The mere threat of American sanctions prompted an Iranian official to talk of sealing off the nearby Straits of Hormuz through which tankers carry much of the world's oil.

Before that, British sanctions had already prompted Iranians to ransack the British embassy in Tehran. During all the recent months of tension, the writer Hooman Majd was living in Tehran to research an upcoming book.

HOOMAN MAJD: If you're just living your daily life, what your concerned with most is the economy and you're concerned most with domestic politics, not with international relations as much. Although, in the last four months, there was a serious affect on people's psyche when it came to the sanctions.

I mean, I saw it myself. You walk by these foreign exchange bureaus, and people are standing outside looking at the, you know, flat screen television showing the rial - which is the Iranian currency - slide against the dollar, you know, almost hourly.

So you know that there is a certain anxiety and tension based on what people were hearing in terms of threats from the U.S., threats from the E.U., various things like that. I was there, for example, during the attack on the British embassy.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people: The British tightened their sanctions on Iran, and a crowd of men attacked the embassy after the British ambassador had been expelled, and they ransacked the place, basically.

MAJD: Correct. Most people assume that it was a reaction by elements within the government or within the regime, if you will, as a reaction to what the British had done, which was to sanction the Iran central bank.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, you're saying that people are feeling these sanctions in their daily lives?

MAJD: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you feel them because, you know, the price of goods goes up. The thing that you bought yesterday at a store - for example, an Oral B toothbrush, you know, something as simple as that, or toothpaste - is suddenly not available in Tehran, because the sanctions have prevented the importers from bringing them in.

But also, the price of goods in general, including even domestically-made goods and domestic products such as fruit, vegetables and stuff like that, have been rising almost on a daily basis. And people are feeling that.

INSKEEP: Who do they blame for it?

MAJD: Well, you know, this is difficult. To some extent, they blame the government of President Ahmadinejad for mismanagement of the economy. They blame him - or his government, at least - for the corruption. But in terms of the actual sanctions, they kind of blame America, and it kind of baffles them a little bit, the policy.

The U.S. policy towards Iran is not really well understood by Iranians. If the goal is to make Iran stop its nuclear program, well, nobody in Iran believes that's going to happen. If the goal is to change the regime in Iran, well, nobody believes that's going to happen through sanctions, either.

So there really isn't - it's not really clear what America and the West are trying to do to Iran. And when you get squeezed because of the actions of a foreign power, you tend to blame that foreign power more than you do your own government.

INSKEEP: It's been said in the past that Iranians overwhelmingly have supported their country's nuclear program and nuclear ambitions, whatever those ambitions precisely might be. Based on the conversations that you had over your nine months there in the past year, is that still true?

MAJD: I think it's still true, yes. I mean, one thing is - we have to remember is that for Iranians inside Iran, they're not thinking about an ayatollah's bomb or a Shiite bomb. Or they're not thinking about nuclear energy for the regime. They're thinking about for the nation. They think about progress. They're proud of their universities. They're proud of their technology.

So they don't really equate it all the time with, oh, my God. We don't want the ayatollahs to have a nuclear weapon. And I think a lot of people know the regime itself is not going to survive just because it has nuclear weapons.

INSKEEP: You know, the journalist Fareed Zakaria not long ago wrote a column in which he said: The real story is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed its economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting. Is that a fair statement?

MAJD: I don't think it's so weak that it's going to collapse anytime soon. First of all, the ayatollahs are the ultimate survivors, and they're very pragmatic. They're not crazy. They've managed to survive under various systems of government for the last 200 or 300 years. And I think that now that they have power, I don't think they're going to do anything that would make them potentially lose their legitimacy.

That said, yes. I mean, there are some serious internal fissures in the Iranian system. And those are going to be played out over the next, I would say, year and a half between the parliamentary elections which are coming up in a month and a half, two months, and then following that in the presidential election of 2013.

INSKEEP: Hooman Majd is a journalist and a regular guest on this program. He's just returned from nine months of reporting inside Iran.

Hooman, thanks very much.

MAJD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: His books include "The Ayatollahs' Democracy."

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