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Iranians, Already Dealing With Punishing Sanctions, Get Hit With More


How is Iran responding to increasing pressure from the United States? We know of Iranian forces shooting down an unmanned U.S. aircraft. We know the public statements of top Iranian officials. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, today scorned the United States as deceptive. There remains the question of what more than 80 million other Iranians may be thinking. Jon Gambrell is going to help us try to figure that out. He's on the line from Dubai. He is the Associated Press Gulf and Iran news director, meaning he coordinates the work of a team of AP reporters inside Iran.

Welcome to the program.

JON GAMBRELL: Thank you. Good morning.

INSKEEP: I guess we should begin with the problem here - authoritarian country doesn't have anything we'd recognize as a free press. How do you go about trying to find out what people are thinking?

GAMBRELL: Well, we long have had an office in Tehran, so my colleagues and I go out and basically just try to talk to people on the street. Sometimes, it's more difficult than other times, but Iranians as a whole, especially in Tehran, are always really willing to talk to people.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, they will say on the street - they will give opinions about what they think is going right or wrong in the country. There's first, in my mind, the economy given the sanctions that are ever increasing by the United States. How do people say the economy is going?

GAMBRELL: The economy's going pretty bad, actually. If you look at the time of the nuclear deal in 2015, the Iranian rial was trading, you know, around 33,000 rials to one U.S. dollar.

INSKEEP: Mmm hmm.

GAMBRELL: Today, it's over 130,000 to one U.S. dollar. And that's really eaten away people's bank accounts. The price of everything from vegetables to milk to car tires to spare tires to car batteries and just everything you need in life is just way more expensive, especially stuff that has to be imported from abroad.

INSKEEP: I'm just trying to do some ballpark math in my head. You're telling me that Iranian currency is worth one-fourth of what it was worth just a few years ago - a total collapse.

GAMBRELL: It's - yeah, it's pretty bad there, and it's a desperate situation. When you talk to young people there, they do feel pretty squeezed. A lot of people do discuss the idea that they want to try to go abroad. They want to try to find opportunity elsewhere. And a lot of the - a lot of people do blame President Donald Trump who withdrew from the nuclear deal last year and set a lot of the current crisis in motion, but they also blame their own government as well. Iran has kind of careened from one economic disaster to another in the 40 years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. And a lot of people feel that government mismanagement, embezzlement and other issues play just as much of a role.

INSKEEP: Now, did Iranian state media, so far as you know, give extensive coverage to the shoot down of the U.S. drone the other day?

GAMBRELL: Yes, they have. They filmed images of the debris that they said came from the drone. We also were there. We saw the bits and pieces of it. It looked like the skin of the aircraft. It's a really big plane, you know. It has the wingspan of a Boeing 737, so it's a huge drone. So the interesting thing, though, when we saw the pieces, they didn't have any of the optical kit or any of the innards of the drone. Whether or not that means they didn't get them or they were trying to peek into them to see if they could figure out what it did, we're not sure.

INSKEEP: So I guess the state media line would be what Iran has said on the international stage - that Iran was defending itself against a drone that flew into Iranian airspace. Of course, the U.S. says something different. Do people on the streets of Tehran accept their government's version of events and feel that they were in some way attacked?

GAMBRELL: That's a good question. People have been kind of hesitant to discuss the larger implications of the crisis right now, but there does seem to be a wider sense on the street that Iran is being squeezed. And while there is a lot of criticism within Iran of its government, there's also a lot of nationalism that rises up when people are under pressure.

INSKEEP: Iran has also said it's beginning to exceed some parts of the nuclear deal even though it's been broadly kept up to now. Do you hear opinions about that or is that another sensitive topic that's hard for people to open up about?

GAMBRELL: Well, I think that a lot of people - it sort of goes down the line. There's some people who feel that Iran should be focusing more on fixing its economy, putting money towards that, but then at the other time - at the other hand, there are people who say that the nuclear program is sort of a point of national pride.

INSKEEP: National pride meaning that it's worth some cost, it's worth some pain because you need to have it.

GAMBRELL: I think it's a matter of them trying to show their strength on the world stage and in a crowded neighborhood.


Mr. Gambrell, thanks for the insights.

GAMBRELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Jon Gambrell is the Gulf and Iran news director for the Associated Press, overseeing AP reporters inside Iran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.