What Iranians Really Think About The Nuclear Negotiations

06/27/2015 10:47 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015
ATTA KENARE via Getty Images

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving world headlines. This time, we speak with Trita Parsi, the founder and president of the National Iranian American Council, about the Iran nuclear talks.

After years of painstaking negotiations, Iran and six world powers are nearing a self-imposed deadline to conclude a deal that would restrict Iran's nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief.

Negotiators from Iran and the P5+1, made up of the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- and Germany, have set a June 30 deadline for a final nuclear agreement.

It's possible they won't reach a deal until after the deadline, as in previous rounds of negotiations. Yet as it has approached, there have been ominous warnings and tough talk on both sides, with major disagreements over the pace and scope of sanctions relief and how to monitor the deal. This week, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rejected several U.S. demands, and an Iranian constitutional body enshrined some of these objections in law.

Meanwhile, a group of U.S. President Barack Obama’s former top aides wrote an open letter warning that the deal currently under discussion may not go far enough.

As the talks enter their final stages, The WorldPost spoke to the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi about how Iranians perceive the nuclear negotiations.

When Iran and the P5+1 announced they reached a framework deal in April, there were scenes of celebration in Tehran. Is the attitude in the country still optimistic?

The optimism remains. There is a lot of support for the deal in Iran. People are just waiting for it to happen.

All the public posturing that is going on right now could give people a reason to pause. Both sides are negotiating in public. But we’ve been through this circus a few times already, and people recognize these patterns.

It doesn’t mean that the talks will fail, but it could indicate the potential for a delay in reaching a deal. This would be problematic, because Iranians have been waiting so long for the economic benefits of a deal. Extending the talks at this time is particularly difficult because it would double the amount of time Congress has to approve the deal, and this gives all the opponents of a deal more time to disrupt it.

What are you going to sanction next, oxygen?

How have Iranians reacted to the supreme leader’s recently hardened stance on the talks? Are the talks a divisive issue in Iran?

The polls show that people want a deal, but they want a good deal which treats Iran’s independence with respect.

The restrictions on Iran’s missile capabilities and insistence on international access to military sites create unease, because there is not a lot of confidence in the West inside Iran. People oppose limitations on nuclear research, because they are not keen on the idea of the international community ruling that Iran cannot expand its scientific base. There is a still a narrative in Iran that the West has tried to keep Iran uneducated.

People are also uneasy about the idea of the West asking for access to Iranian military sites. These are things that only a country that is defeated in war would give up. And Iran has not been defeated in war.

The negotiators will have a hard time selling the deal if the Iranian public thinks that they gave too many concessions to the American side.

Do you see any parallels between the debate in the U.S. and the debate in Iran about a nuclear deal?

Congress recently passed legislation restricting the deal, and now Iran’s Parliament has done the same thing. Yet despite the differences, people on both sides are generally optimistic, as they know this is just a part of the negotiations. It is even more tense this time because it is the final round. In fact, both sides want the stories of high drama and tension to leak out so they can show their own constituencies how hard they negotiated.

Have people in Iran been preparing for economic and political changes if a deal is reached?

People are ready for a deal. The problem is that they have exaggerated expectations of how fast things can change -- how fast sanctions can be lifted and when they will feel the impact of sanctions relief. There will be a problem of expectation management.

How would an Iran nuclear deal affect political dynamics inside Iran? What if the talks fail?

If there is a deal, in the mid and long term we’ll see Iran going in a more moderate direction, because a deal will strengthen the people advocating for that path.

The incentive structure will change. The costs of Iran’s actions in the world will become higher because Iran will now have something to lose. Now, Iran is so outside of the economic and political structures of the region, there is little disincentive. What are you going to sanction next, oxygen?

The deal could also strengthen a middle class in Iran whose welfare is dependent on relationships with the outside world. If Iran risks those relations, this would come at a price, including for some parts of the Iranian elite.

If there is no deal, the challenge will be to retain national unity. But it depends on how the deal falls apart. If the deal collapses because of access to military sites, it would be possible for Iran to blame the failure on the U.S. If Congress sabotages the deal, that might undermine the international sanctions regime and put Europe in a tough position.

This could be the beginning of a lot of taboos being knocked down one by one.

Whether they reach a deal or not, do you think the talks have changed the political conversation inside Iran about relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world?

Absolutely. At the end of the day, dialogue between the U.S. and Iran has been a taboo in both countries for a long time. In Washington, suggesting talks with Iran went against the political consensus. In Tehran, you could be jailed for these suggestions.

Now [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry has spent more time with Iran’s foreign minister than any other foreign minister in the world. Iran’s supreme leader has said these talks could lead to dialogue on other issues of concern. These are a sign of changes, and hopefully they are irreversible changes.

There has been a surprisingly open debate in Iran about the nuclear talks in recent months. This could be the beginning of a lot of taboos being knocked down one by one.

People in Iran are eager to shed the image of Iran as a rogue nation, to be able to travel around the world on an Iranian passport, and to have a sense of normalcy. Iran’s sense of isolation is a profound anomaly. This is a country that has been at the center of affairs in the Middle East for 3,000 years. To accept being an outsider runs counter to Iran’s identity in a way that is not the case for North Korea, for example. The culture of Iran is built on openness to outsiders.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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