TIME Iran

A Former U.S. Marine Imprisoned in Iran Has Gone on Hunger Strike

Iranian-American Amir Mirza Hekmati, who has been sentenced to death by Iran's Revolutionary Court on the charge of spying for the CIA,  stands with Iraqi soldiers in this undated still image taken from video in an undisclosed location
Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, who has been sentenced to death by Iran's Revolutionary Court on charges of spying for the CIA, stands with Iraqi soldiers in this undated still image taken from video in an undisclosed location made available on Jan. 9, 2012 Reuters TV/Reuters—Reuters

Dual U.S.-Iranian citizen Amir Hekmati was sentenced to 10 years for espionage

As the U.S. and Iran engage in dialogue over Tehran’s nuclear program, a former U.S. Marine who fears that he may be forgotten amid the diplomacy has gone on hunger strike to draw renewed attention to his plight.

Amir Hekmati, who has been imprisoned near the Iranian capital since 2011, announced the hunger strike to his family in a phone call Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.

Hekmati holds dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship, and was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison on suspicion of espionage. The U.S. government has repeatedly denied that he is a spy, as has his family in Flint, Mich., who says he went to Iran to visit his grandmother.

“I ask that you not forget me, Mr. President,” Hekmati said in a letter dictated to his family and addressed to Barack Obama. “I ask that you make it clear that my case … should be resolved independent of your talks.”

[AP]

TIME Military

The Warplane That Will Not Die

Aircraft Carrier
A U.S. Navy pilot readies his F-4 aboard the carrier USS Constellation in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam war Vietnam. Terry Fincher / Getty Images

The Iranians reportedly attack ISIS targets in Iraq with U.S.-built 'Mad Men'-era F-4s

Think of it as the return of the Phantom.

Fly boys of a certain age perked up with reports Thursday that F-4 Phantom II’s belonging to the Iranian air force — or what’s left of it — have attacked targets belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in recent days.

The strikes, confirmed by U.S. officials (but denied by Tehran), took place northeast of Baghdad in eastern Iraq. Conveniently, the U.S. military, which is also conducting air strikes against ISIS targets, has been confining its bombing runs to the western part of the country.

If true, the Iranian attacks represent a return to the spotlight for the McDonnell Douglas F-4. The plane was originally designed for the Navy, which flew it first in 1960. It last flew for the U.S. military, specifically for the Air Force, in 1996 (it also was the only aircraft flown by both services’ airshow outfits, the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds).

The two-seat fighter-bomber was the backbone of U.S. air power in the 1970s and ’80s before being replaced by Air Force F-15s and F-16s, and Navy F-14s and F-18s. Capable of flying more than twice the speed of sound, the F-4 could carry nine tons of bombs and missiles. It is the last plane to carry pilots who became “aces” by shooting down five enemy aircraft each over Vietnam.

The U.S. built 5,200 F-4s and sold many of them to 11 nations. Iran bought 225 in the ’60s and ’70s under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979’s Islamic revolution. But the mullahs kept his jets (along with the 79 F-14 Tomcats the shah had also purchased).

Nearly all the surviving F-4s have been retired for decades at the Pentagon’s boneyard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona. But some have gotten a second lease on life as targets for more modern warplanes. Over the past 16 years, more than 300 have been converted into QF-4 aerial targets. They can be flown both with and without pilots, and are used to train air crews to detect aircraft with radar and other technologies.

These repurposed QF-4s have flown more than 16,000 manned and 600 unmanned training missions. About 250 of the unmanned missions have ended with Air Force pilots actually shooting the QF-4s out of the sky.

There are only 39 QF-4s still flying. But not to worry: they’re being replaced with QF-16s.

TIME Iran

Why the Twitter Account Believed to Belong to Iran’s Supreme Leader Keeps Mentioning Ferguson

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a ceremony in Tehran, Nov. 25, 2014.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during a ceremony in Tehran, Nov. 25, 2014. EPA

Account that bears the name of Ayatullah Khamenei accuses U.S. of hypocrisy

The Twitter account generally accepted to represent the views of the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, tweets on a variety of subjects. Sometimes it attacks Israel, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and, often, the United States. At other times it details domestic meetings and events and on one occasion it exhorted boys and girls to play sports. But in the last two weeks a new subject has dominated the timeline of @khamenei_ir: #ferguson.

Iranians, Iran-watchers and journalists believe the Twitter account is managed by Khamenei’s office but it is not clear how directly involved the Supreme Leader is with its output. The account uses photos and video that only officials in the highest echelons of the Iranian government would have access to and in September it was used to post photos of Khamenei recovering from an operation in hospital. The Iranian government has never disputed the authenticity of the account.

Whoever is running it is watching events in Ferguson, Mo., with considerable interest. Exactly one week after a grand jury decided to not indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson on Aug.9, the Twitter account published a string of tweets accusing the U.S. government of “racial discrimination” and “subjugation of a great nation,” a nation with which “we have no problem.”

The account showed photos and videos showing alleged police brutality towards African-Americans with excerpts of a speech by Khamenei on Ferguson. “Racial discrimination is still a dilemma in a country that claims to support freedom and human rights. People are still deprived of living safely in the American society only for having dark skins, ” said Khamenei in the speech.

This is not the first time that Iran’s Supreme Leader has commented on social strife in the U.S. Observers in Iran believe that this is part of the ongoing propaganda battle between Iran and the U.S. that began at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi. “The U.S. government has been accusing Iran of human rights violations throughout the last 35 years, so when there is an incident like Ferguson, Iranian officials take it as an opportunity to retaliate in kind,” says Hamidreza Jalaeipour, a sociologist who teaches at Tehran University. “Just as the U.S. claims that the Islamic Republic does not truly represent Iranians, Iran claims that the U.S. government is not legitimate.”

Other instances of social discord in the U.S., such as the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, also received prime coverage on state-controlled TV and were chronicled by countless articles in the Iranian press.

In spite of the historical animosity between the two governments, however, many American travellers to Iran say they have been surprised by the friendliness and hospitality Iranians show them. Many Iranians aspire to move to the U.S. for opportunities such as studying and work and the U.S. is home to the largest Iranian diaspora community, estimated to number more than one million people.

Observers of Iranian politics say that rhetoric from hardliners about specific domestic American news stories is not necessarily an accurate representation of the views of the majority. “Large swaths of Iranian society want to modernize the country and to interact with the world, but the hardliners fear that modernization will cause deviation from the revolution’s principles,” says Jalaeipour. “They believe that modernization is equal to becoming Americanized. That’s why they use any problem in American society to claim that modernization has bad results. All this interest on Ferguson is only in the official media. They want to show to Iranians that even though we are talking to them, the U.S. is still the Great Satan.”

TIME Iran

Iran Launches Air Strikes in Iraq Against Islamic State

An Iraqi Shi'ite fighter walks past walls painted with the Islamist State flag in Saadiya
An Iraqi fighter walks past walls painted with the Islamist State flag, after Shi'ite fighters and Iraqi security forces took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants on Nov. 24, 2014 Stringer Iraq—Reuters

It has long been known that Iranian troops and advisers have been fighting alongside Iraqi forces

WASHINGTON (AP) — Iranian jets have carried out airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq in recent days, Pentagon officials and independent analysts say, underscoring the strange alliances generated by the war against the extremist group that has beheaded Americans and killed and terrorized Iraqi civilians.

Washington and Tehran are locked in tough negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. But the two adversaries have been fighting parallel campaigns on the same side in Iraq to defend the Shiite-dominated government — and the region’s Kurds — from IS militants who seized a large section of the country.

It has long been known that Iranian troops and advisers have been fighting alongside Iraqi forces, but until this week there had been no confirmation of Iranian air activity. The timing and nature of the strikes are not clear, but a senior U.S. official said they occurred in Diyala province, which extends from northeast Baghdad to the Iranian border. The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose that information.

The Qatari-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera filmed a jet flying over Iraq on Nov. 30 that was identified by Jane’s Defence Weekly as an American-made F-4 Phantom. The Phantom, a twin-engine fighter bomber that was sold to Iran’s U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s, was last produced by McDonnell Aircraft Corp. in 1981.

Iran in the 1980s fought a brutal, ultimately stalemated war with Iraq when that country was led by Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-controlled Baath Party. But the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam left an Iraqi government closely aligned with Iran. A majority of Iraqis are Shiite, as are most Iranians. The Islamic State group, which also controls parts of Syria, is led by Sunni extremists and has attracted many Sunnis who felt disenfranchised by Baghdad.

In public, U.S. officials have walked a careful line over the strikes, while Iranian officials have flatly denied them. Neither side has an interest in appearing to cooperate with the other. America’s Arab allies in the fight against the Islamic State, including Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would not want to be seen as fighting alongside Shiite Iran against a group of Sunni militants.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said Tuesday he had seen “nothing that would dispute” that Iran has carried out airstrikes in eastern Iraq. The U.S. was “not taking a position” on the strikes, he said.

Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said that Iranian attacks on IS militants would represent a positive development.

“I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place, and it’s confined to taking on ISIL, and it has an impact, its net effect is positive,” Kerry told reporters. “But that’s not something we’re coordinating.”

In Iran, a spokeswoman for the foreign ministry, Marzieh Afkham, denied that Iran has cooperated with the U.S.-led coalition, but she neither confirmed nor denied Iranian airstrikes against IS in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, also sensitive to the US-Arab coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against IS and training the Iraqi military to take IS on itself, told reporters Wednesday, “I’m not aware there were Iranian airstrikes.”

Hakim al-Zamili, a Shiite Iraqi lawmaker who heads the Security and Defense Committee in Parliament, said Iran “is serious in fighting Daesh,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. “It has advisers in country. It provides Iraq with weapons and ammunition,” al-Zamili said, adding that he had no knowledge of whether Iranian airstrikes had been carried out.

“If Iran has carried out airstrikes against Daesh, in coordination with the Iraqi government, it is a welcomed step,” he said.

It is unlikely to be welcomed, however, by Republicans in Congress who accuse the Obama administration of not being tough enough on Iran, which the U.S. calls a state sponsor of terrorism.

Iran supports the Syrian government of Bashar Assad, which the U.S. wants to remove. American officials have expressed hope that Iran could play a role in negotiating an exit for Assad and help bring an end to a Syrian civil war that fueled the growth of the Islamic State group.

While most of the territory controlled by the group in Iraq lies along the western border with Syria, Diyala province along the Iraq-Iran border has been the scene of fierce fighting between security forces and the militants.

Last month, Iraqi troops backed by Shiite militiamen and Kurdish security forces recaptured Jalula and Saadiya, seized by the militants in August. Heavy clashes continue in Diyala, with some pockets of resistance outside the two towns.

___

Salama reported from Baghdad. John Thor-Dahlburg, Lori Hinnant and Lara Jakes in Brussels, Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this story.

TIME

Pentagon: Iran Appears to Be Launching Airstrikes Against ISIS in Iraq

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham would not directly address airstrikes on Wednesday

(LONDON) — Iran appears to be launching airstrikes against ISIS targets in eastern Iraq, according to the Pentagon.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marziyeh Afkham would not directly address airstrikes on Wednesday, but said “there is no change in Iranian policy about helping the Iraqi government against ISIS or consulting and advising the Iraqi government against terrorists.”

But Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said he has seen “nothing that would dispute” reports that Iran has carried out airstrikes in eastern Iraq, adding that the U.S. was “not taking a position” on the matter. “We have no indication that the reports are not true,” Kirby told reporters when pressed at a briefing on Tuesday. […]

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Iran

Why Iran and the U.S. Need Each Other More Than Ever

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif before a meeting in Vienna, Nov. 23, 2014.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif before a meeting in Vienna, Nov. 23, 2014. Ronald Zak—Reuters

Once, each needed the other to be their defining enemy. Now, both sides need the other to help resolve a freshly delayed nuclear deal

Even in the absence of a deal, word that talks between Iran and six world powers will continue for another seven months make plain a startling new reality: Iran and the United States now need each other.

That has been true for three decades, of course, but during that time what each found in the other was a reliable enemy. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the ayatollahs who took control in Iran built their entire world view around opposition to the United States, which had propped up the Shah the masses sent packing (and helped engineer a coup against an elected Iranian government in 1953). The presence of the Great Satan allowed the mullahs’ vision to emerge – of a world defined by the teachings of Islam, as interpreted by themselves alone, and free of “Western toxification.” From the U.S. side, the 444-day takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and holding of 52 American hostages, has made the Islamic Republic the country’s go-to villain for more than a generation.

But grudges aren’t all there is to politics. Interests often trump feelings, and Tehran and Washington share a deep interest in reconciling the future of Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

The stakes for the U.S. are plain enough: Barring Iran from the means to develop a nuclear weapon undetected would not only keep a doomsday weapon from a historically radical regime, but also prevent a nuclear arms race in the world’s most reliably volatile region. And now that U.S. troops are back in Baghdad, and poised to remain in Afghanistan past the original Dec. 31, 2014 deadline, the Obama administration needs a clear foreign policy “win” more than ever.

Iran’s interests are not hard to see either – at least some of them aren’t. It wants to avoid being drawn into conflict, and, more immediately, wants relief from the devastating economic sanctions that Obama marshaled to coerce Tehran to the bargaining table. In an economy 80% controlled directly by the state, the estimated $100 billion lost so far has been a body blow to the regime. Among the losers is the financially rapacious Revolutionary Guard, an ideological military wrapped up with economic interests. Iran’s treasury is also stretched supporting its Hizballah and its ally Syria in that country’s civil war while oil prices plummet.

Iran may be wondering whether it even needs to become a nuclear state. It is coming off a string of battlefield successes, including a little-noticed takeover of Yemen by the Shiite al-Haouthi tribe supported by Tehran, and is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Iraq, where it wields huge influence. “We in the axis of resistance are the new sultans of the Mediterranean and the Gulf,” the Iranian analyst Sadiq Al-Hosseini said on state television Sept. 4. At this rate, getting The Bomb might seem like an unnecessary hassle.

At the same time, pressure for a deal only builds among Iran’s youthful population—over 60% of whom are aged 30 or under—and the mullahs fear their own people as any government does. That’s been in evidence since the surprise first-round election of Hassan Rouhani as president last year, on a platform of ending Iran’s international isolation, and could be seen as recently as mid-November, when hundreds of thousands of young people gathered to mourn a pop singer, in a potent reminder of the lasting potential for spontaneous demonstrations and the appetite of youth for connection.

“If that is not a big referendum on the status quo, I don’t know what is,” says Abbas Milani, head of Iranian studies at Stanford University. “Things like this happen on a daily basis, and I think Rouhani has recognized that the society has already moved.”

Other observers see the glass as half empty, or even less. Ray Takeyh, who follows Iran for the Council on Foreign Relations, agrees that, unlike previous negotiations, the mullahs have signaled ownership of the process: “This negotiating team is not called ‘the negotiating team,’” he notes. “It’s called ‘children of the Revolution.’’’ But whatever interests the U.S. and Iran may share, he says, are overwhelmed by those they don’t.

“Arms control agreements are based on trust,” Takeyh says. “Each side has to trust the other. When they don’t trust each other, they both demand reversible steps that prevent years-old enmity from evaporating. I think that’s the reason you can’t get an arms control agreement. I think they both want to solve the nuclear issue, but at this point on terms that are unacceptable to each other.”

Still, they are talking, and holding to the terms of their previous agreement for seven more months. That might not be long enough to repair three decades of mistrust — but it might yet be enough to find that elusive patch of common ground on which to build a deal.

Read next: Iran Nuclear Talks to Be Extended Until July

TIME

Iran Nuclear Talks to Be Extended Until July

Officials sit around the negotiations table during their meeting in Vienna
Officials sit around the negotiations table during their meeting in Vienna on Nov. 24, 2014. Joe Klamar—Reuters

The move gives both sides breathing space to work out an agreement but may be badly received by domestic skeptics

(VIENNA) — Facing still significant differences between the U.S. and Iran, negotiators gave up on last-minute efforts to get a nuclear deal by the Monday deadline and extended their talks for another seven months.

The move gives both sides breathing space to work out an agreement but may be badly received by domestic skeptics, since it extends more than a decade of diplomatic efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear prowess.

International negotiators are worried that Iran is using its nuclear development program as a cover for developing nuclear weapons and they have imposed economic sanctions on Tehran. Iran denies the charge, saying it is only interested peaceful nuclear programs like producing power.

After a frenetic six days of diplomacy in Vienna, negotiators agreed Monday to nail down by March 1 what needs to be done by Iran and the six world powers it is negotiating with and by when. A final agreement is meant to follow four months later.

Comments by key players in the talks suggested not much was agreed on in Vienna beyond the decision to keep talking. The next negotiating round was set for early December but the venue is unclear.

The decision appears to benefit Iran. Its nuclear program is left frozen but intact, without any of the cuts sought by the U.S. And while negotiations continue, so will dole-outs of monthly $700 million in frozen funds that began under the temporary nuclear deal agreed on late last year that led to the present talks.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the sides were giving themselves until March to agree on a text “that sets out in layman’s language what we have agreed to do.” Experts then will be given another four months to “translate that into precise definitions of what will happen on the ground,” he told reporters.

Even the new deadline for a final deal was not immediately clear, with negotiators saying it was July 1, and Hammond fixing it at June 30.

Past talks have often ended on an acrimonious note, with each side blaming the other for lack of a deal. But mindful of hard discussions ahead, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry focused on praise, in an apparent attempt to maintain a relatively cordial atmosphere at the negotiating table.

Kerry, who arrived Thursday and met repeatedly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif, said Zarif “worked diligently and approached these negotiations in good faith.”

“We have made real and substantial progress and we have seen new ideas surface,” he told reporters. “Today we are closer to a deal that will make the whole world, especially our allies in Israel and the Gulf, safer.”

Hammond and other foreign ministers of the six powers also sought to put a good face on what was achieved. Hammond spoke of “significant progress,” while German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said only differences about “technical details” remained.

But the length of the extension suggested that both sides felt plenty of time was needed to overcome the disputes on how much Iran needed to restrict nuclear activities that could be used to make weapons in exchange for relief from sanctions imposed over its nuclear program.

“All the people involved here feel that there really is a chance to find out a way to each other and we are going to take that chance,” Steinmeier said about the decision to extend.

But obstacles far from the negotiating table could complicate the process.

Members of the new Republican-controlled U.S. Congress that will be sworn in in January have already threatened to impose additional sanctions on Iran and may well have enough votes to overturn an expected veto of such legislation by President Barack Obama.

New sanctions could very well derail the talks, as Iran has signaled they would be a deal breaker, and Kerry appealed to Congress to “support … this extension.”

In Tehran, hardliners fearful that their country could give away more than it gets under any final deal could increase pressure on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to break off talks. The talks extension, however, appears to have the approval of Khamenei, who is the ultimate arbiter in his country.

Among other issues, the two sides are haggling over how many — and what kind — of centrifuges Iran should be allowed to have. The machines can enrich uranium from low, reactor-fuel level, up to grades used to build the core of a nuclear weapon, and their output grows according to how modern they are.

Washington wants deeper and more lasting cuts in the program than Tehran is willing to give.

Suggesting some movement on enrichment differences, Kerry told reporters, “Progress was made on some of the most vexing challenges that we face.”

An extension was widely expected as the deadline approached with neither side having the appetite for new confrontation that would renew the threat of military action against Iran by Israel and potentially the U.S. as well as tighten the sanctions regime on Tehran.

Alluding to that alternative, Kerry declared: “We would be fools to walk away.”

TIME diplomacy

Iran Nuclear Talks Expected to Hit Deadline Without Deal

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry steps out as Britain's Foreign Secretary Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Iranian FM Zarif and German FM Steinmeier, French FM Fabius, EU envoy Ashton and Chinese FM Yi pose in Vienna
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry steps out as Britain's Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, EU envoy Catherine Ashton and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for photographers during their meeting in Vienna on Nov. 24, 2014. Pool/Reuters

Deadline was Monday but indications are talks will continue

Negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear program will likely end in a stalemate on Monday, according to reports, but could resume one month after what had been called a deadline for striking a deal.

The New York Times, citing an unnamed Western diplomat, reports that Western negotiators were encouraged by “progress made this weekend” in Vienna and were likely to reconvene in December. But officials offered conflicting accounts of how far the negotiators had come toward reaching an agreement.

President Barack Obama called the differences “significant” in a Sunday television interview, but diplomats offered more optimistic assessments on Monday.

MORE: Iranians ponder economic future as nuclear talks near deadline

One Western diplomat told the Associated Press that the negotiators should complete a broad agreement by March 1 and settle the final details by July 1. Those comments were at odds with Secretary of State John Kerry’s insistence that the objective of the talks was to complete an outline of a final accord by Monday.

Western nations agreed to relax sanctions against Iran in July in exchange for new limits on the nation’s nuclear program and an extension of talks on a final status agreement until this Monday.

TIME

Iranians Ponder Economic Future as Nuclear Talks Near Deadline

U.S. Secretary of State Kerry is surrounded by security as he leaves after a meeting in Vienna
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the Palais Coburg in Vienna Nov. 23, 2014. Leonhard Foeger—Reuters

An accord with world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program could ease the way for foreign investment and free up the country’s assets frozen abroad, something that many hope could help lift its economy out of the doldrums. But others warn against overstating the potential economic impact of any deal

With the deadline for the nuclear talks between Iran and world powers set to expire on Monday, opinion in the country remains divided on what economic benefits might flow for the oil-rich nation if the two sides eventually reach an accord.

Iranian officials have been promoting the upsides of a potential deal, with foreign minister Javad Zarif saying an agreement would be a national victory, although it remains unclear whether an accord will be reached in time for the Nov. 24 deadline or if the talks, which are being held in Vienna, might be extended.

For foreign businesses, an agreement between Iran on one side and the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China on the other could open up a lucrative new market, as Western sanctions are lifted. The removal of sanctions would also free up Iranian assets frozen abroad.

“A deal… would be great, it would create a hope for the future among Iranians, it would lower their stress levels. It would also be a sort of détente with the US, which is an important step for building possible future relations,” says Amir Mohebbian, a Tehran-based political analyst considered close to influential conservative circles. “But more importantly it will allow new foreign capital to be invested inside Iran.”

This could help the country grow again, says Rocky Ansari, a leading financial and business advisor for foreign firms looking to invest and trade with Iran. Though rich in oil, Iran’s economy has suffered in recent years, with the country falling into recession, while unemployment and inflation both remain high.

“The impact of lifting sanctions will make a significant contribution to helping the economy come out of recession more rapidly, the freeing of Iran’s assets will help the government expedite the recovery of the economy,” says Ansari. “It will boost confidence in the government and the future and allow it to plan more substantially for the coming years. We would see a reflection of that in the Tehran Stock Exchange. People will be able to commit themselves to long term projects and investment.”

He concedes, however, that such changes will take time. “It will obviously take some time to implement policies. But even ahead of that the business community, the economy will be very pleased to hear that the sanctions will be gradually lifted, trade will be made easier and that financial transactions with the international banking system would take place more easily and at much lower cost, so this will be all very good news,” says Ansari.

Not everyone in the country is as optimistic. Hossein Ghasemzadeh, a merchant at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, the Iranian capital’s sprawling centuries-old trading center, says the recent economic slump has been toughest he’s ever experienced. “I’ve been working for 42 years in this Bazaar, but never have I experienced such hard and stressful times as the last six years. Even the revolution and the war period were better than now. Customers are few, and the profit margin is too low for comfort with the unstable economy today,” he explains.

But Ghasemzadeh, who sells home and kitchen appliances, doesn’t blame the sanctions imposed by foreign powers. “The main cause of the unstable economy, the reason we have so much problems is not the sanctions but the incompetence of the officials,” says.

Another merchant, Mohammad Arjmand, who sells clothes, agrees. “Of course no sanction is better than sanctions but it’s not going to change much because most of the country’s economic problems have nothing to do with sanctions,” he says. “The economy, the country, everything has been getting worse every year, the main problem is bad management and incompetence by the government. That’s why the lifting of sanctions won’t change anything for us.”

The merchants’ skepticism is shared by Saeed Laylaz, an economist and professor at the Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran. He says that while removing sanctions will have long term benefits for the Iranian economy, it won’t by itself fix everything. “The main cause of Iran’s economic woes, and I’ve always said this, is corruption, mismanagement and bad policies by the government, especially during the tenure of the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,” he says. “The effect of sanctions on Iranian economy has been exaggerated and the belief that the lifting of sanctions will jump start the economy and miraculously solve all of Iran’s economic troubles is also disproportionate.”

Ultimately, what impact a deal in Vienna—if there is one—might have on the Iranian economy will likely depend on how the government responds to any easing of the sanctions regime. New policies will have to be formulated, as the economy, isolated for so long from the international markets, opens up. And it’s in this area, says Mohebbian, that the government needs to tread with care.

“What will really happen when all of the blocked assets and foreign investment capital starts to arrive inside Iran?” asks Mohebbian. “The government has no economic scenarios for the day after the deal.”

“I’m warning the government that they shouldn’t think they will have an easy job in the economy after a deal,” he says. “Iran had by trial and error learnt how to deal with the sanctions, but if a sudden influx of capital is not properly managed and controlled, if instead of infrastructure, creating jobs and medical care it is spent on consumerism, than it will magnify the wealth gap significantly. If that happens, and I fear that the government has no plans in place to prevent it, than instead of improving social welfare, the nuclear deal could ultimately cause social unrest.”

TIME Iran

Iranian Officials Seem Cautiously Optimistic About the Nuclear Talks

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, attends a meeting in Tehran, Sept. 7, 2014. AP

Releases in Iran's state-controlled media seem to indicate the country is preparing for a deal at the nuclear talks in Vienna

There’s no shortage of pessimism about whether Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive deal on the country’s nuclear program by Nov. 24, the self-imposed deadline. Time is short, and as a senior U.S. official said before leaving for Vienna, where the talks began, “we have some very serious gaps to close.” But those looking for optimism need search no further then Tehran’s official media. Tightly controlled by the regime that is the ultimate authority on any pact, the country’s media may be preparing the Iranian public for an agreement.

While hardliners in Tehran grump about the talks, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has clearly aligned himself with the negotiators—even posting an interview with one of the diplomats, deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi, on his personal website this week

“Araqchi basically said ‘We’re winning this, we’re not giving in,’” says Abbas Milani, who heads the Iranian studies department at Stanford University. Milani was astonished by the post. Never before had Khamenei’s office made the site a forum for another official, even one understood, as Araqchi is, to be serving as the Leader’s personal representative. It signaled a full embrace of the talks by the man who, as his title makes clear, holds ultimate power in the Islamic Republic.

“The headline was that the leader has had oversight of the entire negotiating process,” says Milani. “It’s clear to me this was an attempt to make a claim for victory and dissuade the idea that [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani is doing this on his own and will get all the credit.”

On the same day as that post, the man Khamenei named to lead Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps was widely quoted on government outlets as saying that a nuclear deal was consistent with the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which remains the litmus test for all government endeavors.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander, also appeared to prepare the public for elements of a deal that may not look like a win for Iran. “If it appears that there are aspects of this where we’re accepted humiliation, first of all it’s not true — we are winning,” Jafari insisted. “But those perceptions of humiliation are because of the clumsy management and inexperience of some of our negotiators.”

The goal, the commander said, was the removal of the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by Washington and other world powers. “God willing, this goal will be reached,” Jafari said.

There was more. Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, which is dominated by conservatives, spoke of “our spirit of resistance” taught by Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei as “the reason or our success, and why in spite of all efforts by the enemy they could not stop our progress on the nuclear front.”

“It is possible to have a deal,” Larijani added. “It’s just important for the U.S. not to ask for new conditions.”

Some in Iran complained that new conditions are just what the U.S. has indeed demanded. One hardline member of the parliament, or majlis, claimed to have seen the contents of an eight-page proposal Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly showed Iranian negotiators in Oman the previous week, and compared it to the Treaty of Turkmenchy, the 1828 capitulation to Russia that Iranians consider the epitome of humiliation, losing not only territory in the Caucasus but even the right to navigate on the Caspian Sea, which forms Iran’s northern border.

But to Iran watchers, what’s truly significant is that such grumbling is only background noise in what appears to be a concerted effort by Iran’s top echelon to set the foundation for a deal—if not on Monday, then if the talks are extended, as they may well be. There may be more riding on it than just escape from economically ruinous sanctions. The New York Times on Thursday quoted Amir Mohebbian, a conservative adviser long tied to the Leader’s office, predicting a nuclear deal as a harbinger of a strategic change in Iran’s entire political orientation.

“If there is a deal, and if it is good, the entire system will go along with it,” Mohebbian said in Tehran. “There will be a huge political shift after the deal. It is my conviction that those who make decisions within the system want it to be alive and supported. For survival, we need to change.”

It’s just such a change that President Obama has repeatedly said a nuclear deal might herald, opening the way for Iran to end its pariah status and return to “the community of nations.” So it’s possible Mohebbian is saying no more than what the administration wants to hear. But the expectations of a deal are running high in Iran, and the government appears to be doing much less than it might to discourage them.

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