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How Do Iranians Feel About The Thaw In Relations With The West?


Let's try to understand what this moment means in the relationship between the United States and Iran. Over the weekend international monitors gave assurances that Iran had taken the promised steps towards scaling back its nuclear program. International sanctions were quickly lifted from the Iranian government and its major industries. And this means Iran can start selling oil to the West again. And then Iran freed four Americans held in its prisons, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. And the United States released some Iranians held in prison here. We have New York Times reporter Thomas Erdbrink on the line from Tehran. Thomas, good morning and welcome back to the program.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me.

GREENE: Can you just tell me what the mood is in Tehran? I mean, does this feel like, when you talk to people, a momentous moment?

ERDBRINK: No, surprisingly people know that this is a momentous moment, but they are kind of cynical. And they are cynical because over the past two and a half years, when these negotiations were going on, when the nuclear deal was being verified, they have been made so many promises by their own leaders and also by President Obama that actually their lives would improve after this nuclear deal will be implemented. They have seen many milestones. Sometimes they even went on the streets to, you know, drive around their cars and honk their car horns and wave flags. But there was nothing of that over the weekend when the nuclear deal actually was implemented and those sanctions were lifted. And that is because people feel as if all these promises made first need to materialize. And of course the news of new sanctions - new American sanctions - over its ballistic missile program slapped on Iran by the United States sort of adds to the feeling that the normal ordinary Iranian is just a victim in this entire story.

GREENE: And we should say those new sanctions that the Obama administration announced, as you say, deal with banned missile testing. I mean, still, the lifting of these other sanctions seem like a pretty big deal - opening the Western markets to Iranian oil. But interesting that people just aren't seeing this as a moment. What do they need, do you think, to be convinced that this will actually make a difference in their lives?

ERDBRINK: I think they need to really see that their lives will improve. Their purchasing power has decreased so much over the past 10 to 6 years of several sets of sanctions. A normal average family has trouble, you know, surviving in the way they would like - a normal middle-class family. So when they see that they actually can transfer money to, for instance, their uncle who is living abroad or when they can receive money for the - they start showing out state. They sold somewhere in Europe or even United States as is possible now. I think that will be the moment that they see, hey, this deal is actually working and our lives are changing.

GREENE: So Iranians who have found the United States, for the past number of years they have not been able to transfer money. I mean, they've really been limited in terms of what they can do.

ERDBRINK: Yeah, absolutely. And actually Iranians worldwide have been having trouble sending money inside their country and out of their country. And you can imagine with over 5 million Iranians living abroad, with Iranian businessmen being among the oldest businessmen in the world. I mean, this country was at the heart of the old Silk Route. Iranians are traders. It was completely cut off from the outside world where you literally had to bring money in your - hide it in your backpack in order to bring it into Iran. So this should all be solved. Now, that said, international banks still have to accept Iranian payments and that can of course also be a problem because Iran is still a state sponsor of terrorism according to the United States. And that means that European banks will need to ask for special licenses if they want to deal with Iran. And it also means that American banks aren't allowed at all to deal with Iran. So the picture is not as black and white. It's not as if from today everything is possible. And that's why I think people are taking this latency approach.

GREENE: And, Thomas, just in the few seconds we have left, I mean, President Obama sent this message to young Iranians saying, pursue a new path with the West. I mean, how are young Iranians responding to messages like that from the president?

ERDBRINK: Well, young Iranians - and there's many of them - have heard a lot from President Obama. But at the same time they still see themselves faced with these sanctions. And, again, on Sunday these new sanctions might not directly hurt them, but they are a signal that the issues between United States and Iran are far from over. So they're taking that into account when he says that.

GREENE: All right. We have been speaking to Thomas Erdbrink, a reporter for the New York Times who is on the ground in Tehran, talking to us about how people there are reacting to what seems to be a thaw in relations between the United States and Iran. Thomas, thanks as always for coming on the program.

ERDBRINK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.