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One Of The Many Unresolved Storylines Of 2017 Is Iran


One of the many unresolved storylines of 2017 is Iran. Ask the Trump administration, and Iran is a threat - a country not to be trusted. But so recently, another U.S. president made a nuclear deal with them, and some U.S. allies are eager to do more business with a country that does have a moderate leader. President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected to a second term earlier this year though he's still confronting hard-liners at home. So what will 2018 bring for Iran? Let's talk that through with NPR's Peter Kenyon, who has covered just about every Iran story on this network. He joins us from Istanbul. Hi, Peter.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Hey, David, how are you?

GREENE: I'm good. Thank you. So one of the stories you covered was the presidential election of Rouhani in Tehran. He defeated a hard-line cleric. Take us back there. What did that feel like?

KENYON: Well, I enjoyed that trip partly because it was an exciting time for these people who thought they were going to bring about some change - moderates, reformers. These are people - let's say to the left even of Rouhani himself. He's more of a centrist, a pragmatist. But the moderate and reform votes really propelled him to a big win over this hard-line cleric. And analysts said, well, maybe this is a moment for the reformers. Maybe they'll get a little stronger now. So far, we're still waiting for that to happen - that - we haven't seen it. The hard-liners are pushing back. They're attacking the president whenever they can. And he's kind of been struggling - no real political momentum for anything, including the number-one priority which is fixing the economy.

GREENE: So you have Rouhani who, you know, is a centrist - is pushing for investment and economic partnerships with Europeans and other countries despite these threats from the Trump administration - President Trump wanting to derail this nuclear agreement that lifted a lot of the sanctions on Iran. So make sense of all of that. Where does that situation stand?

KENYON: Well, you're right. And this is a big distinction between Rouhani and other leaders. He is more outward-looking, more willing to talk with other countries, make deals. And that nuclear deal lives on, in spite of the threats from Washington. President Trump has declared that Iran's not in compliance with it. But the agency in charge of verifying it, the IAEA, says, oh, yes, they are and has said that multiple times now. So it's not a clear win for either side. The hostile pressure from Washington is giving some companies pause in Europe and elsewhere when they look at doing business with Iran.

Economists say people inside Iran at the basic street level - ordinary Iranians - they're not seeing much change. However, critics in Washington and elsewhere will point out the Revolutionary Guard - the elite military unit that has its hands in a lot of the economic pie in Iran - they have benefited from the lifting of sanctions. And that's increasing what they call Iran's malign behavior in the region. So they want more talks, curb the missile program and other things that Iran really has shown no interest in.

GREENE: And, Peter, on the world stage, I mean, some of the narratives you hear about Iran is - you know, for one, they have this enormous growing influence, which has some people in the region very scared. They're in this sort of larger war for influence with Saudi Arabia. And so that's a tension and a pressure. And then you have the United States putting Iran on the top list of global threats in the world. So if you're Iran, how's Iran respond to all of that?

KENYON: Well, if you're a hard-liner in Iran, one of the clerics and one of the very conservative types, this is about what you expect - from the U.S., anyway. They see America as their main enemy. In a way, they're comfortable with the Trump administration in ways that they would not have been with Barack Obama. Now the struggle against Saudi Arabia, which you mentioned has sectarian overtones - the Saudis being a leading Sunni-Muslim power. Iran's a leading Shiite power. And it's playing out mainly in third countries, like in Yemen where Iran is backing these rebels, the Houthis, who are fighting a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and even launching missiles toward Riyadh. So Iran is also supporting Shiite militias in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. And these situations are not likely to get better any soon - any time soon.

GREENE: Anything in particular that you think we should look for as the new year starts?

KENYON: Well, I think it's more questions than answers. Basically, the Trump administration is promising a tougher policy. We haven't seen the details. U.S. allies are not thrilled with the idea. But I think as Iranians look ahead, they've just got a lot of questions.

GREENE: NPR's Peter Kenyon reporting for us in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.

KENYON: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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