VANITY FAIR | In Iran, it's possible to protest the regime, oppose Iran's role in Syria and Yemen, mourn Soleimani, and have positive views of the U.S. Five Iranians talk about their complex perspectives on the global landscape.
Almost no other country observes United States presidential elections as closely as Iran. This is because the Iranian people know that, one way or another, the next American president’s policies will directly impact their livelihood. For the better half of the past 100 years, the United States’ regional goals and on-the-ground activities have strongly influenced how Iranians view the sincerity of the American government and the credibility of U.S. foreign policy in their region. At times, this complicated history has left dark stains that haven’t yet faded in the minds of Iranian citizens: the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, for instance; facilitating the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the late ’80s; or the downing of Iran Air flight 655 that killed 290 civilians in 1988.
All the while, Iranians have also been under pressure from their own government, which, in recent decades, has choked its people and further isolated itself from the global community. In short, over the years—and especially in the past 40—the Iranian people have lived in the liminal space between two global powers: the regime at home, and the man in the White House. They fully understand that a hawkish administration in the States can be as damaging as a hardline government at home; in contrast, they’re excited at the prospect of a sensible leader in the Oval Office.
In between the confrontational policies of the Trump administration and the destructive behavior of the Islamic Republic are 80 million Iranians. And while Iranian society is a cacophony of juxtaposing ideas, one thing is clear: In an environment where their most important need is to make ends meet, even pro-America Iranians are disillusioned with the United States as a direct result of the current president’s behavior. Vanity Fair spoke to five Iranians inside the country about their views of the current crisis.
Ali S. is a single 27-year-old teacher. In addition to teaching in rural villages, he also teaches college-prep courses to high-school students in Tehran and Isfahan. Like many of his friends, he said he supported last month’s pro-reform protests while simultaneously mourning the death of Iran’s top General Qasem Soleimani.
“For a lot of people in Iran, General Soleimani was different from the rest; he was protecting our borders and our country,” Ali said. “If it wasn’t [for] him, ISIS would come to Iran. He did what he did without getting involved in domestic politics and was a people’s person. For example, during the flooding in Khuzestan, he came out himself and helped the people. It’s actions like this that have made him popular among regular Iranians who are disappointed in officials. Even if it was for propaganda and political gain, people still buy it—especially at a time when they see how officials send their kids overseas and pretty much don’t care about the people.”
Ali said that while he disagrees with the Iranian government’s presence in places such as Yemen and Syria, what happened to Soleimani was an act of terror against his country. “I don’t agree with the war in Syria. In fact I don’t agree with any war; no war is good,” he said. “A country that needs so much help itself shouldn’t be spending its resources building military bases in the region—Iran’s money should be spent on the Iranian people. But separately, I think what Mr. [Donald] Trump did to the general was also terrorism, and it got worse when he threatened to destroy our cultural sites. Why? What’s his endgame?”.
For Ali, the room for negotiation is slim, and the only victims are regular people and young professionals who want stability and financial security. “Before all this, it was hardliners who needed to be convinced for any negotiations, but now the majority of regular people are disillusioned about negotiations because they don’t see any point negotiating with Trump,” he said. I just hope he doesn’t win again. No one can trust his behavior.”
A strong Bernie Sanders supporter, Ali said the Iranian government should take advantage of this small window of opportunity that has united the people against Trump in both Iran and the United States. “Just this week, my 18-year-old student was worried about whether or not there’s going to be a war. Why should the Iranian people live in constant fear of war, terror, and instability? There’s nothing more painful than living life in constant fear of conflict.”
Arash A. works for an advertising agency. Together with his wife, also a professional, they have a modest middle-class life that has taken a downhill turn thanks to Trump’s departure from the Iran nuclear deal and the reimposition of economic sanctions.
“What’s the point of having a deal and negotiating when someone like Trump will come and undermine everything in one day?” He asked. “Every year we have bonuses and a salary raise, but in all honesty I can tell you that my quality of life was so much better two years ago. Today, even though I have a higher salary, I have deeper financial challenges.”
For Arash and his friends, Trump is perceived as an “unstable businessman.” “On the one hand, he curses North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, but on the other hand he rushes to take a picture with him,” he said. “There’s no stability in what he wants and does.”
Arash explained that unlike in previous years, people’s problems go far beyond a spiraling economy. “Post [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, there were economic challenges and hardships. Then during the [Barack] Obama administration, with the signing of the nuclear deal, we were hopeful that the economy would revive with the removal of sanctions,” he said. “But right now, there is no economy in Iran—it’s nonexistent. After Trump’s new rounds of sanctions, Iranians are no longer living in a bad economy—they are peddling to survive in a financial abyss.”
Arash said the Iranian people’s distrust of the United States’ policies toward Iran will not change until after Trump is out of office. “What Trump did with the sanctions, the killing of Soleimani—regardless of your view of the man himself—and his latest threats on our cultural sites, have all led to a major mistrust of the U.S. government.”
Taraneh Gh. is a 32-year-old stay-at-home mom. Her husband works with his father in the family’s company.
“The crazy orange man,” she said, laughing. “What can you expect from him now? Do you think we should trust him? Those of us who once believed that something good may come can no longer believe in a single word he says.”
Taraneh said she is not a regime supporter but condemns Trump’s killing of Soleimani. ”Okay fine, you did this; what next? Obviously Iran will retaliate; what next? What benefit does this man’s terror have for the Iranian people who are suffering financially as a result of your sanctions?”
She added, “Every single time Trump took a step, we bore the brunt of it in Iran. He made us lose trust. The U.S. only cares about our resources and its own power. I’m not sure if you’d find many people here who genuinely believe that the U.S. cares about us or wants the Iranian people to have a better life.”
Reza Gh., Taraneh's father-in-law, said that many Iranians like him want to be left alone. “Over the years we’ve gotten used to pressure, and every single time, the United States’ actions somehow makes the pressure even harder. Let us have our own domestic problems instead of amplifying them.” He added, “People around the world need to understand that just because Iranians may be opposing the government here, they are not necessarily supportive of the United States and in this case President Trump. Things are not black and white—there are so many other elements at play.”
Reza said that before Trump’s travel ban, he and his wife were able to travel to the States to visit their son. “One day my son asked me if I would ever move to the U.S. if the opportunity presented itself. I immediately said no. People like me, who spent 50, 40, 30 years building a business and a life here in Iran, are used to the situation here, as bad as it may be. We just don’t want it to get worse.”
He does not believe U.S. intervention would improve things. “I just finished listening to Mr. [Mike] Pompeo’s remarks,” he said. “Much of it was lies—the same kind of lies we’re told here by our own government. No one here thinks that if the U.S. intervenes and comes to Iran, things would get better for us. In fact things would get worse; just look at Iraq, look at Afghanistan, look at Libya.”
“God willing things will get better,” he said. “You know, before all of this I may have not cared about Soleimani, but after Mr. Trump’s actions, I now consider Soleimani a revered man.”
Negar Kh. works in the private sector with a focus on women’s empowerment and nonprofit work. She has also spent a year in the U.S. where she completed an internationally recognized leadership program.
“I got so happy when I received a call from my friends in the U.S.,” she said. “They were so ashamed of their president. They told me they hope things will change in the next election and that somehow the American people will have a decent man in office.” Negar explained that while she understands Trump’s appeal to some Americans, she knows that many ordinary people in the U.S. don’t want a war with Iran.
“When Trump killed Soleimani, I didn’t get sad because for me, he’s part of the regime,” she continued. “But I got sad for the behavior of Trump and its implications, which only make our lives more miserable. From his travel ban to sanctions, nothing has changed for the government, but everything has changed for us—ordinary people who have the same hopes and dreams as the rest of the world. All we want is to live a free, prosperous, and happy life.”
Negar believes that if Trump wants to punish the Iranian government, he should sanction government entities and individual officials and kick their children out of the U.S. “The sanctions have had very little effect on the government...really the only victims were us.”
Negar said Trump’s supporters should understand that they too have something to lose. “They can’t be safe and secure when he’s putting so many others under threat. A world without hope, a world where you wake up not knowing what’s next, a world that you’re constantly fearing war and attack is a dark world—that’s what he has done for us.”