On streets of Tehran, Iranians celebrate a long-sought opening to world

Crowds who gathered in Iran's capital after breaking their Ramadan fast hailed their negotiating 'nuclear hero' Zarif. Many hailed the prospect that the nuclear deal had opened a door to a brighter future. 

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Iranians celebrate the historic nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers led by the US, by waving flags and clogging streets of Tehran, Iran, on July 14, 2015.

Horns honked and flags waved here as darkness fell Tuesday and the Ramadan fast was broken as Iranians marked the nuclear deal reached between Iran and the six world powers led by the US. For the first time in years, they relished the prospect of an improved economy and reengagement with the West.

As news spread of the deal signed in Vienna, crowds began to gather in Iran’s capital and in cities around the country.

“I think the people’s lives will open to the world, because sanctions and being apart has made Iran go backwards,” says Maryam, a worker in a gas turbine factory, as she watched several hundred celebrants cheer and chant.

“It’s a way for the door to open, which makes this day important,” she says.

Behind her, the crowd chanted a traditional slogan of resistance – “An Iranian will die, rather than accept oppression” – resistance having been a common refrain among Iranian leaders praising government negotiators seeking “victory” at the negotiating table.

Another chant was dedicated to the country's foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the delegation at the marathon talks: “Our nuclear hero, we give you a kiss because you are tired.”

The celebrations provided a snapshot of relief and high expectations, and of a population that voted for President Hassan Rouhani, who pledged to create a “government of hope” after eight years of hard-line rule under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was marred by mass street protests in 2009.

In Vanak Square, watched by alert policemen, the crowd also chanted in favor of Mr. Rouhani fulfilling another election promise: to lift the house arrest of two former presidential candidates who led those Green Movement protests.

But the night was given largely to the nuclear success, and jubilation that finally the emotional roller-coaster of negotiations was over.

Collective sigh of relief

“It’s a really big day because it gives us hope for the future, which is something we have been losing a lot,” says Amir Tehrani, a young English teacher, adding that all his students planned to hit the streets.

“But I’m not sure; it will take time. The financial pressure the last four or five years was so high,” says Mr. Tehrani. “This [nuclear deal] is the thing I really counted on, to make pressure lighter, at least.”

Diplomats in Vienna spoke of a “historic” nuclear deal that would strictly contain Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions, and savored the results of more than three years of intensive negotiations that have forestalled the chance of war.

But for many Iranians glued to their television sets – at home, in shops, and in electronics stores selling big screens – the result was a collective sigh of relief.

“The button has been pressed, we are beginning anew,” said Narjes Sedaghatfar, a math teacher who voted for Rouhani but has kept expectations in check until now. Sanctions have meant as much as a 30 to 40 percent drop in the quality of life for many Iranians, she reckons, because of high prices.

Celebrating hope

While a company’s profit might fall, for a worker it could mean getting fired. Drugs she needed two years ago could not be found, Ms. Sedaghatfar says, adding that she is still suffering the side effects of the poor quality Iranian substitute she was forced to use.

Walking home from work, she says, she had not decided if she would have time to join the street celebrations.

“I will be at home, and just be happy and plan for a happy future,” says Sedaghatfar, wearing a blue headscarf, light lipstick, and a print-design manteaux over jeans in the upscale Fereshteh neighborhood. “When hope rises, that is celebration in itself.”

Iranians have had reason to celebrate several times since the June 2013 election of Rouhani, who has promised outreach to the West and an “end to extremism,” while also vowing to end the nuclear crisis and sanctions, to boost the economy.

They took to the streets the night of Rouhani’s election, then when the interim nuclear deal was reached that November, and again after the Lausanne framework agreement last April.

On the eve of the deal, the Iranian police said they were “ready” for any celebrations, and senior politicians encouraged street celebrations or not, depending on their political stripe.

Wishing for better US ties

But until this deal proved that both Iran and the US ­– and the five other world powers negotiating with Iran – could overcome mutual mistrust, at least on the nuclear file, many were reluctant to count on change.

“We are very happy about it, and I hope the US Congress agrees with this agreement, and we have closer US-Iran relations,” says Mohsen, an older physician wearing short sleeves and a plaid tie – an uncommon pro-West statement in the Islamic Republic – while riding the bus home from his ears, nose, and throat practice.

“We are wishing for better relations with the US for many years, but unfortunately hard-liners did not let it happen,” says Mohsen, a dual-citizen Iranian-American who trained in Rochester, Minn., and gave only his first name.

“It depends mostly on the extremists and [supreme leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” he says. “If he agrees on this matter, as he did in the nuclear talks, everything would be much better. Most Iranians would love to visit the US.”

The top US and Iranian diplomats – John Kerry and Mr. Zarif – should win the Nobel Peace Prize, says Mohsen. “We are hoping for change and better days. People are suffering from the economy.”

Rouhani's place in history

Not everyone is convinced that things will get better anytime soon. Just a few feet away from Mohsen on the same bus cutting north through central Tehran traffic were two young members of a band that plays on the street.

“There are not going to be benefits for the normal people – this is a deal between governments,” said Hamidreza, who cradled his guitar between his legs and gave only his first name. The busker duo plays Metallica and Pink Floyd songs, hoping for handouts.

“They have shown they don’t care about the people,” says Hamidreza. “Some things will happen, but not for normal people, not for daily life.”

But that was far from a typical view, on a night that many Iranians have yearned for, for months and years. 

Ticking off the names of famous ancient Persians, Maryam, at the Vanak Square rally, says, “Rouhani: He’s one of these men whose name will go down in history.”

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