New Iranian President Brings 'Resurgence Of Hope' For Some

Reporting from inside Iran has been very difficult for Western reporters over the last several years. The disputed 2009 elections triggered massive anti-government protests. In response, Iran cracked down hard on protesters, and clamped down tightly on journalists' access. That has begun to change with Iran's newly elected president, Hassan Rouhani. Scott Peterson, reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was recently able to visit and report from Iran for the first time in more than four years. Peterson speaks with host Arun Rath about his trip.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Arun Rath.

Reporting on Iran is difficult and frustrating, and for those on the ground there, dangerous. It was especially bad after the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, which triggered massive protests. Iran cracked down hard on the dissenters and heavily restricted Western reporters' access. But the country's recently elected president, Hassan Rouhani, has started to change things.

President Rouhani has helped initiate the first high-level talks with the U.S. in decades. There's some progress in negotiations on Iran's controversial nuclear program. And his government has opened up the country to some Western reporters.

Scott Peterson of the Christian Science Monitor is one of them. He was able to return to Iran for the first time in four and a half years.

SCOTT PETERSON: Since the dispute about that election in 2009, which led to weeks and even months of street protests and this so-called Green Movement, there really has been hardly anybody that's been able to be inside and reporting, and certainly very few who've been able to report freely.

RATH: So in that span of time, that substantial gap, how have things changed in Iran since the last time you were there?

PETERSON: Well, things have changed in a lot of different ways. I mean, first of all, what I heard from Iranians, the way they described the last four years, especially kind of between the presidency - the second term of President Ahmadinejad and then this new election, which has brought about so much hope for so many Iranians with President Hassan Rouhani, that period they really described as a very dark time.

Many people told me after the election and the violence of 2009, they told me they would never cast a ballot again, that they couldn't trust that their vote would be counted or anything like that. So one of the dynamics that has yielded this kind of resurgence of hope or re-engagement of Iranians and their political future and in the politics of today is the fact that they themselves overcame their doubts about the election system and basically went out to vote and elect by a very thin majority, this more moderate cleric as president.

RATH: And as you mentioned, you know, this new president who elected last year, Hassan Rouhani, he's been hailed as a moderate and reformer and even seems to have the backing of some of the religious authorities. So several months into his tenure now, how much support does he have there?

PETERSON: Well, it's remarkable because this is a character, in fact, who really occupies the largest portion of Iran's political spectrum that we've had as a politician over at least the last 20 years. So he not only has, in many respects, the trust of Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but he also gained the support of some of the most powerful reformists and moderate blocs. So that really has meant that he occupies this big space.

And the way that I saw this kind of manifesting itself on the ground in Tehran is you really get a sense of people having optimism now for the first time in a lot of years. Now, they're not sure where it's going, but for them, today is much better than the situation - the political situation that they saw six months ago.

RATH: And something else, though, that might temper the optimism that you've written about is that it sounds like there are still some fairly powerful hard-liners that are not happy with the idea of a new order.

PETERSON: One of the most striking things that I saw during this visit was going to the Friday prayers. And, of course, Friday prayers for the last 34 years have defined kind of where the political weathervane was pointing for the Islamic Republic. And in this instance, I heard Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, who's kind of a renowned hard-liner, and he was, you know, at the beginning of his political speech, and he's sitting there - of course, he sits there, his left hand is kind of clutching the barrel of an AK-47 rifle.

And while he's holding that, he's speaking to these thousands and thousands of people who are there. And he kind of blandly ticked off some of the usual things, the anti-American stuff, how we can't trust the Americans because they're deceitful, we need to be very careful. But as soon as he began to speak about the internal political dynamic, as soon as he started to speak about the sedition, which is what the regime has termed these events in 2009, these protests, as soon as he started speaking about that, his eyes lit up.

He became very agitated, very angry, and said - with these new political changes. He said, these people have come in. They feel that they've been given new life. They feel that they've been given, you know, given kind of new hope. We must remind them that we are vigilant and that we will not allow them to, you know, kind of relaunch the sedition.

This gives you a sense, you know, the hard-liners, those who are against what Rouhani is trying to do, those who are against reaching out toward the West are suspicious of any contacts whatsoever with the United States. They live in that world of suspicion. They are still very, very powerful. And even though the election demonstrated that they are minority, they have a very loud voice, and they also have many, many resources to use to their advantage.

RATH: Scott Peterson reports for the Christian Science Monitor. He's also the author of "Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran - a Journey Behind the Headlines." Scott, thank you.

PETERSON: Thank you.

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