A Report from Iran

New Yorker depiction of negotiations with Iran

Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain had a great piece in The Intercept, Iranians’ View of the Nuclear Deal: Optimistic, With Significant Caveats, that linked to the tweet above from back in April. The Intercept article talks about Iranian public opinion about the nuclear deal that was just announced, and emphasizes the exclusion of Iranian voices from U.S. media discussions, and how that distorts Americans’ views of Iran (in ways that favor hard-liners’ favored policies here). Key paragraphs from the article:

There are some notable exceptions, but the general exclusion of Iranian voicesfrom establishment U.S. media coverage, whether by intent or otherwise, has had a very distortive effect on how Iran is perceived, allowing its citizens to be depicted as primitive, irrational, apocalyptic religious fanatics. While that caricature arguably applies to the U.S.’s closest allies in the regime, and to some of the most extremist Iranian (and Israeliand Americanfringes, it is wildly inapplicable to Iran as a whole.

The youth literacy rate in Iran is 98.7 percent, as compared to 82.4 percent in Iraq, 70.8 percent in Pakistan, and 89.3 percent in Egypt. Enrollment in tertiary education is only two percentage points below that of Germany, the U.K. and France. Iran’s Human Development Index is far ahead of most of its neighbors. As Elahe Izadi explained last year in the Washington Post, “being a highly educated Iranian woman is actually quite normal. Women outnumber men in Iranian universities, a trend that started in 2001.” Similarly, Reza Aslan has pointed out that “Iran currently has the highest number of U.S. college alums serving in any foreign government cabinet in the world.” The country’s vice president, Masoumeh Ebtekar, is a woman.

American journalists, who pride themselves on “neutrality” and “balance,” should spend some time considering how much of a platform they give to Israelis and how little they give to Iranians. Whatever one’s views, hearing from Iranians themselves about their own country — rather than relying on Israeli and American critics — is a prerequisite to journalistic fairness.

The whole Intercept piece is worth reading. It reminded me of something that economist and D&S pal Cyrus Bina sent around a couple of weeks ago–a first-hand account from University of Minnesota anthropology professor, William O. Beeman, about his recent visit to Iran and discussions he had with a wide range of Iranians about the nuclear deal:

(I have had several requests for this assessment, and so I am replying
below. I am happy to be quoted on any or all of my remarks).

I have just returned from a three-week trip in Iran in which I interviewed
hundreds of Iranian citizens. I have written several reports of my trip.
They are a bit unrefined and I will be editing them into a much longer
piece. I think many know that I speak fluent, unaccented Persian, so I am
able to talk with Iranians of all ages, ethnicities, education and income
levels quite easily.

Basically my conclusions are that 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.

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 is the result of great unhappiness.
Many families have sacrificed greatly to send their children to college. If
they attend the Daneshgah-ye Azad, they must pay tuition. This varies by
faculty, but it seems to be about 1 million tomans per semester. Middle and
upper class Iranians can pay this, but for the lower income groups it is
very hard. Of course attending government institutions is free, but many
students still have to work to support themselves.

More realistic (one might say, cynical) people believe that the lifting of
sanctions will not result in 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? 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 this 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. 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.

Agriculture has 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.

Again, the cynics in Iran point out that much of the import 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 imports 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.

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.

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.

However, the aforementioned business forces in the United States favor the
accords as does the Obama administration, so there is a real difference of
opinion in the American system.

Let me say that I personally believe that John Kerry and Javad Zarif are
very accomplished negotiators. If it were up to them, they would have
finalized these accords in a minute.

Also, I believe 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. Iran does not need the United States to benefit from
success in these accords, but Iranians overwhelmingly want Iran and the
U.S. to be friends again, even if conservatives in both Iran and the United
States oppose this.

William O. Beeman
Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology
University of Minnesota