ANKARA (Reuters) - After years of tough sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, many in the country now say they want the government to make compromises that could satisfy world powers and allow a semblance of prosperity to return.
Although many Iranians still fervently believe in their country’s right to all aspects of a civilian nuclear program, including those regarded with suspicion in the West, they are increasingly tired of the high economic price.
That weariness will form the backdrop on June 16 when Iran’s political leaders send negotiators to Geneva for talks with six world powers aimed at hammering out an agreement that swaps concessions on uranium enrichment for sanctions relief.
“I love my country but I love my family more, and for years I have worked hard to cope with the rising prices,” said Ali Mirzai, a father of three in the northern city of Rasht.
“I am tired. My only hope now is (President Hassan) Rouhani. He is trying to improve the economy by resolving the nuclear issue. I believe in him and his policies.”
Mirzai, like millions of Iranians who bore the brunt of the sanctions, voted last year for pragmatist Rouhani after he promised to improve the flagging economy in part by striking a deal with the outside world.
Although there are no reliable opinion polls in Iran, Rouhani’s large margin of victory on a platform of compromise, and anecdotal evidence gleaned from recent telephone interviews across the country suggest strong public appetite for a deal.
“Rouhani and his team will solve this issue. I am sure his moderate and compromising policy will work. We don’t need hostility,” said Arvin Sadri, 31, who runs his father’s furniture factory in the northern holy city of Mashhad.
After several rounds of talks last year, a preliminary deal was penned in Geneva in November, including a limited easing of sanctions in exchange for Iran halting some nuclear activities.
The agreement took effect on Jan. 20, and was designed to buy time for a final deal within six months. As the deadline fast approaches, the lifting of some sanctions has given Iranians a taste of how things might improve.
Maryam Simai, 41, a schoolteacher in the central city of Yazd said she supports the atomic program and believes sanctions are unfair. But she still favors compromise.
“I want to live in peace. I don’t want to fear for the future of my children. The tension with the international community and sanctions have ruined our economy and has isolated us,” she said.
If a lifting of sanctions is important to many Iranians, it is vital for the political hopes of Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate who has pledged to boost the economy.
“A deal with the world powers will bring political and economic stability to Iran. Rouhani’s political future depends on this deal. He will become a lame duck president if he fails to reach a deal,” said political analyst Hasan Feghhi.
Analysts and economists say he has only partially succeeded in repairing economic damage that Iran suffered during years of confrontation with the West, particularly under his hardline predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The official inflation rate has halved to around 20 percent since Rouhani’s election, but unemployment remains around 30 percent and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Meanwhile, Iran’s rial has dropped against the U.S. dollar.
“I support my country’s nuclear achievements but at the same time I don’t think it is logical to pay a heavy price for it,” said Jinus Dadgostar, 18, who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Zaferaniyeh in northern Tehran.
Years of official rhetoric denying that sanctions were hurting and glorifying the country’s supposed self-reliance resonated with some Iranians, who said they were happy to suffer to defend a program that came to symbolize national pride.
However, Iran’s traditionally cautious clerical rulers, loath to incite any Arab Spring-style domestic unrest or provoke harsher international action, have adopted more emollient language in recent months, diplomats said.“Iran’s clerical rulers need this deal to guarantee their power. That is why they have changed their tone,” said a Tehran-based western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But because a failure of talks would rebound even harder on pragmatist Rouhani and his allies, they can still afford to take a harder position than the president, the diplomat added.
“No deal or a bad deal will strengthen hardliners in Iran.”
Rouhani’s position is made more complicated because although his status as president gives him a big say, it is lower in Iran’s political hierarchy than that of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on the nuclear file.
Backing away from atomic defiance could be politically tricky for Khamanei, who has supported hardline positions on the nuclear file in the past.
But, for now, he appears to fear the economic problems caused by sanctions could weaken his position and he has cautiously backed the talks, calling for “heroic flexibility” but still expressing pessimism about the outcome.
“The members of the team work under direct guidance of the leader (Khamenei). Everything is being reported to him and he sets the tone for the Iranian negotiators,” said a senior Iranian official, who asked to be unnamed.
One sign of Khamanei’s current support for some form of compromise can be deciphered in the hardline media, which has started publishing articles that justify a more conciliatory approach, often citing economic hardship.
Oil exports account for around 60 percent of Iran’s economy, much of its food and animal feed come from abroad, and many of its factories assemble goods from imported parts.
“I am tired of this nuclear dispute. For years we feared further economic pressure and possible military action. A nuclear deal is our only chance to live in peace,” said interior designer Mastaneh Alavi in the northwestern city of Tabriz.
But many Iranians contacted by Reuters still argued for a “balanced” nuclear deal, saying it would be unfair to deny their country a technology possessed by Pakistan, India and Israel.
“As our leader said, we will not accept closure of our nuclear facilities,” said Asghar Seydani, 38, who is a member of the hardline Basij militia in the western city of Kermanshah.
“No sir, I will not accept it. If necessary, I am ready to sacrifice my blood for continuation of our nuclear activities.”
From businessmen in Tehran to housewives in Shiraz, many Iranians dread possible consequences of failure of the talks including further sanctions and even military attack.
The United States and Iran’s arch foe Israel have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve Iran’s nuclear dispute. However, analysts say such an attack could well consolidate the clerical establishment’s power.
Khamenei, for his part, said on Wednesday he did not consider a military strike was an option for the United states.
”America has now understood that a military attack is not a priority. They know that such attacks are even more dangerous for the attacker than for the country attacked.”
Editing by Angus McDowall and Ralph Boulton