TEHRAN, Iran — While opinions differ across Tehran’s Grand Bazaar about the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Iran over its unraveling nuclear deal, there’s one thing those in the beating heart of Iran’s capital city agree on: American sanctions hurt the average person, not those in charge.
From an English-language teacher hoping for peace to an appliance salesman who applauded President Donald Trump as a “successful businessman,” all said they suffered from the economic hardships sparked by re-imposed and newly created American sanctions. The Iranian rial’s collapse has eaten into the savings of a retired bank clerk, while a young man with a shock of bleached-blond hair says those his age want to leave the country.
Iranians spoke to The Associated Press on Tuesday, a day after authorities acknowledged the country had broken through the limit placed on its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by the 2015 nuclear deal. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal a year ago.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have seen the U.S. rush an aircraft carrier, nuclear-capable B-52 bombers, F-22 fighters and thousands of additional troops to the Middle East. While Iran says it doesn’t seek war, it recently shot down a U.S. military surveillance drone. Iran also now acknowledges an “intentional” disruption to GPS co-ordinates in the country by authorities, interfering with position data used by the U.S. military for airstrikes and drone flights.
Under the nuclear deal, Iran agreed to have less than 300 kilograms (661 pounds) of uranium enriched to a maximum of 3.67%, which can be used for power stations but is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. Both Iran and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency confirmed Monday that Tehran had broken through that limit.
While that represents Iran’s first major departure from the accord, it still remains likely a year away from having enough material for a nuclear weapon. Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes, but the West fears it could allow Iran to build a bomb.
Iran also has threatened for weeks to push its enrichment closer to weapons-grade levels on July 7 if Europe doesn’t put forth a new deal to protect Tehran from U.S. sanctions. As the stockpile and enrichment rises, the estimated year narrows.
“There should be some negotiations. Both parties should talk in a friendly manner,” said Nahroba Alirezei, a 35-year-old English-language teacher. “They should think about the Iranian people and the Iranian society and the American society. Young people should not suffer more than this.”
On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Iran to “show restraint, not yield to emotions.” China expressed regret, while French President Emmanuel Macron urged Iran to reduce its stockpile.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Britain and the European Union’s foreign policy chief said that “we have been consistent and clear that our commitment to the nuclear deal depends on full compliance by Iran.” They urged Iran to reverse the move “and to refrain from further measures that undermine the nuclear deal.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran will comply with the deal to the same extent as European signatories implement their economic commitments.
Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani criticized the increasing U.S. military presence in a televised speech.
“They think they can just come and occupy a country by sending four warships to the region,” Larijani said. He also warned other countries in the region not to join any U.S. coalition against it, saying: “If they rally against us, they will have to pay the price for it.”
While the government says challenging the West over its nuclear program is necessary, some Iranians like Sajjad Nazary, a 23-year-old university student in Tehran, question the move as leading to more economic suffering.
“Instead of the nuclear program, the Iranian people need bread,” Nazary told the AP outside of Tehran’s sprawling bazaar. “They want their economic situation to get better. The point is with nuclear energy, you can’t make your children’s bellies feel full.”
But Nazary, like others there, said he didn’t believe a war would break out.
“Trump is too smart to do that and he’ll in no way harm himself like that,” Nazary said. “The situation is dangerous but none of us are aware of the politics. Maybe all of this was a threat to meant to open some new ways.”
He added: “This was just a threat to make the Iranian officials come to their senses.”
Despite that optimism, there are signs Iran is taking the threat of a possible military escalation seriously.
Hossein Fallah Joshaghani, a government telecommunications official, told the state-run IRNA news agency Monday that the source of the GPS disruptions in the country had been determined, but no action was taken. That suggests an authority in Iran is actively disrupting GPS systems, which can be used for U.S. drones and airstrikes, as well as civil aviation and mobile phone apps.
While some blame Trump for the tensions, Mehdi Hamzeh Nia, a 39-year-old appliance salesman, applauded the U.S. president as a “successful businessman, a man who knows what he’s doing and doesn’t want others to know what he’s doing.”
Asked about the economy, which has seen the rial go from 32,000 to $1 to now nearly 130,000, Hamzeh Nia blamed not just the sanctions but local mismanagement as well. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran’s government has careened between economic crises involving poor planning and embezzlement, which U.S. sanctions have exacerbated.
“I think 50% is related to sanctions and 50% is domestic,” he said. “Even if the foreign 50% is resolved, and the domestic 50% is not fixed, our situation will still get worse.”
That fall in the rial has hit retirees particularly hard. Yussuf, a retired banking official who would only give the AP his first name for fear of retribution, said things remained extremely difficult for those on fixed incomes like himself. He said he took on odd jobs to help make ends meet.
“I think in very tough situations, wise decisions are made easier,” he said. “I think that the officials at the right moment will not let us fall off the edge of a cliff.”
But he was not complimentary of Trump’s approach.
“In the past he was not predictable, but now he almost is,” Yussuf said. “For everyone around the world, it’s now clear that he only thinks about American interests.”
Nazary and Hamzeh Nia, both younger men, said they thought about leaving Iran, given the stress. Hamzeh Nia said he worried about how to support his family, which includes a 5-year-old son.
“We would love to leave, if the situation remains like this,” Hamzeh Nia said. “There is no future for you here.”
But the most pressing concern for Alirezei, the English teacher, is the need to ease tensions.
“It’s not a good idea to respond to threats with threats,” Alirezei said.
Asked what she hoped for, she responded in English: “Peace, just peace.”
Associated Press producer Mehdi Fattahi and writer Nasser Karimi contributed.
Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press