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Who Do Iranians Blame For Their Poor Economy? The U.S. Or Their Government?

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: A big question hangs over the two countries from which we're broadcasting today. The United States has imposed what it calls maximum pressure on Iran, and we've seen the economic damage here.


The question is who Iranians blame. U.S. leaders are hoping Iranians will blame their government for leaving them less wealthy and more isolated. Iran tells its people to blame the U.S. for dropping a nuclear deal and imposing sanctions.

INSKEEP: We have asked dozens of Iranians what they think. They must speak carefully in a country without free speech, yet many gave candid views, including people we met before a religious holiday in Tehran.


INSKEEP: People celebrate on street corners by playing music. They pass out free cups of juice to people stuck in traffic.

It's really tasty. Yeah. It's like a fruit juice.

We had time to try it because we were creeping through traffic. It took almost three hours to move about 10 miles to our destination, a park in southern Tehran. We didn't arrive until long after dark, but that was the time to arrive. People stroll in the park very late, after the heat of the day has faded.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: There's a shrine to unknown soldiers here where a man led a religious chant. Farther down a path, people strolled - subway workers, students, teachers, accountants, retirees. Three teenage girls played volleyball, though they did not have a net. The ball kept flying off-course and bouncing off our producer, Victoria Whitley-Berry, as she tried to record.

VICTORIA WHITLEY-BERRY, BYLINE: (Laughter) I'm not good.

INSKEEP: Three people sat on a bench, and the person in the middle was Lily, who said she was 18.

Is it a big holiday here, a big celebration?

LILY: Yeah, it's for Muslims. It's very big. And we are really happy.

INSKEEP: So it's a happy time.

LILY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: This is my question, though. Is this - oh, that's the sound of fireworks in the distance, I guess. There are fireworks here, right? Is this a happy time in Iran?

LILY: I think no because most of the people are worried about some economical problems. And for example, you come here, for example, 2 a.m. or in the midnight - you can see that some people sleep in the park. Really, they do not have any homes. And we cannot, for example, communicate with European. They think that we are terrorists. Really, they think that we are terrorists. But we say that we are your brothers. We are your sisters. We are not terrorists. They are our government. Our people is not like that.

INSKEEP: Who do you blame for Iran's economic trouble?

LILY: I think our government.

INSKEEP: Now, there are two levels of Iran's complicated political system. There is an elected president, Hassan Rouhani, who made the nuclear deal with the West. Iranians can generally criticize him, and many do. Above him is an unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is rare that he is openly criticized, yet some people are doing that now.

LILY: Our leader...

INSKEEP: Ayatollah Khamenei.

LILY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You blame him.

LILY: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: What has he done wrong?

LILY: Because for example, when the new government started to work for us and Mr. Rouhani really tried hard to communicate with European, with American and with other people in Europe and America - but our leader, I think, don't like to.

INSKEEP: Khamenei was skeptical of the nuclear deal and, now that President Trump has withdrawn from it, says there is no point in talking further. To be very clear, nobody we met called for Khamenei's overthrow, just more openness.


INSKEEP: In this Tehran park, many families spread out blankets in the dark. One family gathered around a hookah, smoking and eating sweets. They live in this blue-collar neighborhood, and one, Nilofar, called the economy really bad.

NILOFAR: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "Most of our politicians have a bird's-eye view," she said, "and don't understand the troubles of the lower classes." Across the blanket was Shahrooz.

Who do you blame for the economic problems you've described?

SHAHROOZ: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "I blame both Khamenei and President Trump," he said. "When two people go to war, the common people get hurt."

These are some of the people we met in and out of Tehran. In other places around the city, people were far more critical of the U.S., and they include people who might seem sympathetic to the U.S. We visited the home of Marzieh Azarafza, who served us tea.


INSKEEP: She was once involved in Iran's Islamic Revolution, yet she is now seen as favoring reform. She has lived in the U.S. And her clothes, like her views, suggest an openness to different ways of thinking. They are conservatively cut, showing only her face. But instead of conservative black, she wore red. Though she wants change in Iran, she does not want U.S. sanctions.

MARZIEH AZARAFZA: I believe there is a radical lobby of Arabs and Israel. They don't like Islamic Republic. They don't like independence and national government in Iran.

INSKEEP: She says sanctions just encourage corruption in Iran. Those involved in black market trading, including many in the government, prosper under sanctions.

I think you're telling me that if the United States had remained open with Iran - that it might have encouraged Iran to have better rule of law, more openness, more freedom.

AZARAFZA: Exactly. I want to say sanction has targeted democracy in Iran, modernization in Iran.

INSKEEP: American officials now say they're on the side of democracy and on the side of freedom and on the side of the Iranian people and that that is why they are imposing the sanctions - because they want to pressure the current government to change.

AZARAFZA: Who can believe it? Who can believe it? What they did in Libya and Syria, how they support Saudi Arabia, all the dictators, how they are doing in Venezuela - who can believe that they are support democracy?

INSKEEP: In posing this question - who do you blame for Iran's trouble? - we heard a wide range of answers. Yesterday, we were in a town outside Tehran and found an extended family that disagreed among themselves on that question. To be sure, Iran's leaders maintain strong control of this country. They have kept the economy functioning. They've cracked down on dissent. And they have a monopoly of power. But they do not have a monopoly on people's opinions.

GREENE: That's Steve Inskeep, our colleague who's been reporting all week from Tehran. Steve, thanks so much.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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