First-time visitors to Tehran are often surprised by what they find. Iran’s vast capital city, nestled in the shadow of the majestic Alborz mountains, is an urbane, vibrant, sophisticated place. As much as you will find deeply conservative religious attitudes, you will also find moderate, outward-looking and decidedly modern ones. There are burger joints, fashionably dressed teens, even food trucks.
But this is also a place used to conflict and hardship, so while the escalating political tensions of recent weeks are not ignored, they are not especially new. Walking around Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, there is a sense of a people who have seen all this before.
This is, after all, a city that survived a brutal war with neighboring Iraq and has lived with sanctions of varying degrees for many years. “I am not afraid,” one man, wearing a bright yellow shirt, told me. “We had eight years of war and every day missiles were targeting us.”
People here are reluctant to speak on camera, but among the city’s more conservative residents, attitudes toward the US reflect the rhetoric of Iran’s government. “America is nothing,” one woman told me, her voice filled with disdain. “Whenever we talk, they don’t answer us properly. There is no point talking to them.”
The Iran deal was designed, in part, to help bolster reformists here and bring this long-isolated country into the global fold. Business deals were quickly forthcoming, and the easing of sanctions led to a brief bloom of prosperity. Those shoots are withering in the face of recent events. Shops have closed, and businesses are struggling to attract clientele, whose pockets are shallow. Having glimpsed the possibilities of a more prosperous future, perhaps even Tehran’s stoicism has its limits.
Another woman in the Bazaar urged Donald Trump to focus on the impact of his policies on normal Iranians. “Trump should be looking at the people of Iran rather than the government of Iran,” she told me. “All the problems he has created are putting pressure on the people. I don’t want to politicize it, but the people are economically vulnerable and suffering.”
Others are looking to the Iranian regime to take a softer line. “Of course, they should talk to each other and solve the problems so that the conditions will improve,” one man said. “I would like our government to do this to prevent the situation from getting even worse.”
Like so many people around the world caught up in a conflict in which they have little say, there is also a yearning for normality. “There is a fear among the people that there might be war,” the same man acknowledged. “But our people would like to have stability and peace.”
The abiding feeling in Tehran is that the hardening of rhetoric has made that unlikely any time soon. There is no “off-ramp” in this confrontation, and with two sides appearing equally intransigent, all anyone here can do is simply get on with their lives and hope for the best.