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Ordinary Iranians Acknowledge The Pinch Of Tightened U.S. Sanctions


President Trump has vowed to put, quote, "maximum pressure on Iran." He wants to force Iran to renegotiate a nuclear deal and change its behavior in the Middle East. Now, Iran's economy was in trouble even before the U.S. started tightening economic sanctions. NPR's Peter Kenyon wanted to find out if Iranians are feeling this economic pressure in their daily life.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It can be risky for Iranians to be seen or heard speaking to Western media. So Armin, a high school teacher in Tehran, agrees to talk via Skype if his last name isn't used. He says prices in Iran have been rising for almost a year, but things really began to get painful this spring.

ARMIN: Since, let's say, March, there has been unprecedented acceleration in the prices of everything - almost everything.

KENYON: Armin says almost because the government has made sure the price of certain items, like fuel and bread, doesn't rise too much. But in other crucial areas, costs have soared.

ARMIN: The worst case I can tell you is about the rents and the houses price. It has changed so dramatically, it is almost impossible to live in Tehran. Many people who used to work here someplace in Tehran, like people in their 30s, had to give up their houses and go back to their families.

KENYON: The result, he says, is empty houses in Tehran and economically displaced families. But how much of this is due to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions? Economists say that's not so clear because the problem of soaring rents in Tehran has been going on for years. What is clear is that President Hassan Rouhani promised Iranians better economic times while negotiating the 2015 nuclear agreement. Those better times didn't show up at the street level in the wake of the nuclear deal. And now that Trump has pulled out of the deal and is reimposing sanctions, economic relief seems further away than ever. Parisa, a 30-year-old student in Tehran, says via Skype that people seem to be giving up hope.

PARISA: What I hear from people are that they're really disappointed in voting, they're really disappointed in living in Iran, so they want to get out of Iran.

KENYON: Economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani at Virginia Tech University says that's what he's finding as well - hopes that had been on the rise a few years ago are now souring into indifference.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: That hope is now gone. They no longer have faith. And that plays against economic growth because a lot of decisions people make - to invest in Iran, to stay in Iran - are dependent on this level of hope of what they expect to happen next few years.

KENYON: As for who gets the blame, the economic protests that have flared up since late last year generally blame the government, not outside pressures. That's fine with Iran's hard-liners, who warned that the pragmatic Rouhani would regret trying to make a deal with the West. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said recently that negotiating the nuclear deal was a mistake, and he laid the blame for the poor economy at the government's feet.


SUPREME LEADER ALI KHAMENEI: (Through interpreter) Not that the sanctions have no effect; they do. But the main cause relates to how we function. If actions are taken more efficiently, more prudently, more swiftly and firmly, sanctions cannot have much effect, and they can be resisted.

KENYON: But Parisa says people are well aware of Trump's sanctions, and they're backing Khamenei's vow never to negotiate with America again. She says that leaves Iran in a difficult spot.

PARISA: On one hand, Islamic regime is still strictly saying that we are not going to deal; that's our policy; we are against America. And at the other hand, people are getting more disappointed and disappointed, especially people are getting poorer. And who knows what will happen next?

KENYON: Barring an unexpected change, the next external event should come in November, when the U.S. reimposes sanctions on oil, the heart of Iran's economy. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.