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Despite Misgivings Iranians Support the Vienna Nuclear Accords

06/24/2015 10:10 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2016

Most Iranians are very hopeful that the Vienna talks will be successful. They never talk about nuclear energy or nuclear weapons. They only talk about the lifting of sanctions.

I have just returned from a three-week trip in Iran in which I interviewed hundreds of Iranian citizens on this topic from 12 different cities in Western and Central Iran. I speak fluent, unaccented Persian, so I am able to talk with Iranians of all ages, ethnicities, education and income levels quite easily.

Young people in particular see success in the talks as benefiting the problem of unemployment for university graduates. Four million Iranians will graduate with their "lisans" (undergraduate degree) this year. That is 5% of the entire Iranian population--a huge number. For lower-income Iranians this unemployment situation has created great unhappiness.

Many families have sacrificed greatly to send their children to college. If they cannot pass the rigorous government entrance exams, or if they live in a remote area, they can attend the Daneshgah-ye Azad, the "Free University" established in the 1990s by President Rafsanjani. However, it is not "free", they must pay tuition. This tuition varies by faculty, but it seems to be about 10 million rials per semester--about $300). Middle and upper class Iranians can pay this, but for the lower income groups who may make below $9,000 annually, it is very hard. Of course attending excellent government institutions is free, but many students who are admitted still have to work to support themselves. After all this sacrifice, when these students emerge with their college degrees and cannot find jobs, both they and their families become extremely bitter. Despite their hope, many realize that the lifting of sanctions will not result in immediate jobs.

More realistic (one might say, cynical) people believe that the lifting of sanctions will not result in any immediate benefits for the less affluent populations. The most cynical people say that if sanctions are lifted it will only really benefit the very wealthy who are going to be best prepared for foreign investment, which, based on the enormous number of foreign businessmen and women I met seems to be inevitable. Iran's GDP growth was in excess of 3% last year by independent measures (World Bank, IMF) which exceeds that of the United States. Iran's absolute poverty level stands at 12%, but the United States is at 15% as is Australia and Japan.

And why not extensive international investment? Anyone can see in a trice that Iran is prepared for it already. One of the most important things I learned on this trip was that Iran has developed an extremely robust internal economy and that highly developed infrastructure has emerged since the revolution--and aided by the sanctions (which insulated Iran from the global recession, paradoxically).

One can see the robust infrastructure everywhere. There are factories, mining facilities and thriving businesses in every part of the country we visited--Tehran, Zanjan, Hamadan, Kermanshah, Khorramabad, Ahwaz, Shiraz, Yazd, Isfahan, Na'in and Kashan. Roads--four-lane divided highways between major cities--are better than any other nation in the region. Railroads are expanding and air transport covers the entire nation with frequent service. The roads are full of commercial transport vehicles loaded with agricultural and consumer goods and basic materials such as stone, wood, petroleum products and manufactured building materials.

International business people come and see industrial and commercial facilities and networks that are already established and working full-steam. They have written about this in leading business journals which are cited proudly by many Iranians. The strong message to the international community is that no primary investment will be necessary for international partners in many cases--only expansion both of the scope of manufacturing and in marketing and distribution.

Iranian agriculture has also greatly expanded (at the expense of water resources, however). The nation is groaning with high-quality food. The produce is beautiful and abundant as the amount of land under cultivation has expanded tremendously. This is an incredible difference from the period just before the revolution when Iran was importing so much food. Now Iran exports to Iraq and the Persian Gulf States. Several farmers told me that they could easily export high quality produce to Europe if the sanctions were lifted.

Again, the cynics in Iran point out that much of the import-export economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard officers and other high public officials. People on the street told me over and over that these people oppose the Lausanne/Vienna accords because their grip on international trade will be broken if the markets are opened.

So we have a curious paradox. Everyone I talked to, without exception wanted the accords to succeed. Many emphasized not the economic benefits but rather the need for "friendship" between the United States and Iran. One elderly Qashqa'i woman put it succinctly: "Why can't we just be friends. Why all this fighting? Who does it help?"

In the United States we have several factors that create opposition to the Vienna talks, but it is hard to explain these obstacles to Iranians, who see great benefits accruing to the United States and other Western nations if the accords are successful.

First, Americans do not have an accurate image of Iran. The idea that Iran is a backward, hostile nation with terrorists running around everywhere and women under total oppression is very widespread. I have never seen such a huge gap in perception between fact and reality. This is partly due to nearly 40 years of estrangement. Many Americans think that Iran is a dangerous place, and that if they were to travel there they would be arrested or terrorized.

This makes it very easy for pro-Israeli groups in the United States to demonize Iran in American public opinion. Groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its offshoot, the Washington Isntitute for Near East Policy (WINEP) are propaganda think tanks with a huge grip on American legislators and American Public media.

The New York Times is one of the worst offenders in telling outright lies about Iran. The New York Times has an inordinate influence on public opinion in the United States. The reporters David E. Sanger, William J. Broad, Rick Gladstone and Michael Gordon have been writing inaccurate, negative articles about Iran regularly for at least 12 years. The editorial staff, who writes the headlines for their articles also makes their articles look even more negative than they are. These articles circulate in Iran and create great distress among Iranians, who have cited them to me with great indignation.

Because the American public has such a negative view of Iran, politicians have found out that attacking Iran is good for their political ambitions. No politician ever lost a vote by attacking Iran. Saying negative things about Iran draws applause and general public acceptance. Moreover, if a politician says something even mildly positive about Iran, like: We should talk to Iran, they are immediately attacked as anti-Isarael or even anti-Semitic. Here again, Iranians know about these matters. They know who Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Lindsay Graham are, and they are upset about their anti-Iranian rhetoric.

However, Iranians also are aware that the aforementioned business forces in the United States favor the accords as does the Obama administration. This difference of opinion in the American system is a further source of confusion and consternation for Iranians with whom I talked.

By contrast there is great admiration for Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, are very accomplished negotiators. Iranians feel that if it were up to these two men, they would have finalized these accords in a minute. People regularly told me that Secretary Kerry's son-in-law is Iranian, and that Foreign Minister Zarif's Ph.D. was earned in the United States, and so they have a common mutual understanding.

There is an additional pervasive belief among Iranians that the other members of the P5+1 group will ratify the accords. So even if the United States does not, trade will resume between Iran and Europe. One businessman told me: "Iran does not need the United States to benefit from success in these accords."

But nevertheless, Iranians overwhelmingly want Iran and the U.S. to be friends again, even if conservatives in both Iran and the United States oppose this. Aside from the economic benefits, this strong and pervasive desire for friendship between our two nations was the strongest sentiment I encountered on this trip.