On Iran's Streets, 'Death To America' ... And Hope For A Nuclear Deal : Parallels Many Iranians seem prepared to shift relations with the West. But there are also plenty of skeptics when it comes to the prospect of a nuclear deal and normal ties with the U.S.
NPR logo

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/386876102/386876103" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
On Iran's Streets, 'Death To America' ... And Hope For A Nuclear Deal

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/386876102/386876103" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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.


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?


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.


SHOGHI: Telex.

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


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


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?


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.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.