© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Iran: When They Were Optimists

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: I'm Steve Inskeep in Tehran, where we are revisiting familiar faces. There are people we interviewed years ago when Iran had a nuclear agreement with the United States. That deal, limiting Iran's nuclear program, was also meant to open Iran's economy to the world.

So what's happened now that the U.S. has left the deal and moved to close off Iran? We can feel that through the stories of people we last heard on this program in 2016.


Which is why we dug into the archives here at NPR. And we found your story, Steve, about two Iranian women who ran a business back then. One of the women was Sara Noghani. She'd come back to Iran from abroad.


SARA NOGHANI: So I decided to come back to Iran and start my business and do whatever I wanted to do in Australia - do it in Iran because it's more appreciated. Not more appreciated. It's more in need, I think.

INSKEEP: Oh, I remember that visit to the store, Noel. Both of these women favored more freedom and more opportunity, and the shirts and scarves they sold in their stores suggested both of those things. They designed clothes that carried Persian poetry about things like hope or dreams.

KING: OK, so that was back in 2016. Now that the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Iran again, what's it like for Sara now?

INSKEEP: Well, we couldn't ask Sara directly for reasons that will become clear. We did find her business partner, who we also met in 2016. And her name is Pooya Shahsiah (ph). She agreed to meet us on a street corner. And we went for a walk, dodging cars that, in Tehran, don't really slow down for pedestrians.

POOYA SHAHSIAH: (Through interpreter) They might speed up.


INSKEEP: Pooya led us to a coffee shop. It's one of many in the capital of this Islamic republic, where you can't go to a bar, but you can find a cafe.

INSKEEP: What's the coffee that was good here? You said there was...


INSKEEP: The filter. OK, filter coffee - that's fine.

The waitress said they also had hot croissants.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It could be served with peanut butter or Nutella.

INSKEEP: Nutella.

And as we sipped coffee, Pooya recalled the days when she was running the store.

SHAHSIAH: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "We were ready for a positive change because of the nuclear deal," she said. But Iran's economy enjoyed only limited benefits before President Trump withdrew in 2018. And around that same time, Pooya and Sara's clothing store closed. What happened to Sara? She left Iran, accepting an offer to live in Australia. And that is why Pooya was meeting us alone.

When we last spoke, she said, I'm losing hope, but I'll give it one more year.


INSKEEP: You're smiling. You remember that.


INSKEEP: What does it say about Iran that she then decided to leave?

SHAHSIAH: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "It means," she said, "a loss of hope." Although she added, I'm not totally hopeless. When something ends, something new begins. She's been doing freelance graphic design. She was wearing layers of clothing, as women must in Iran. And beneath her button-down shirt was a T-shirt that she designed. It showed a wolf pretending to be a shepherd and moving among sheep. This was inspired, Noel, by a Persian poem which says the wolf thinks he's fooling the sheep, but the sheep know what's going on. Seems like a metaphor for political leaders.

Pooya favors reform in Iran, but not the U.S. pressure campaign.

SHAHSIAH: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "Many things must change in Iran," she said, "but on our terms. We have to do it."

KING: Oh, that's really interesting. So not the United States, but us.


KING: All right. So she's a person in Iran who wants reform. But then there's a different type of person who you also visited. Back in 2016, you did this story, and the headline on NPR's website was "Digging Deep To Build The Tallest Hotel In Iran."

INSKEEP: Really deep. It was a story of an Iranian man named Ebrahim Pourfaraj. We met him beside this enormous hole three years ago. He's a businessman, and he's a developer. And his construction crews had dug 200 feet down on a site that was surrounded by older buildings.


INSKEEP: And I see there's no place for a construction camp - for offices and so forth - and so you've actually put them on the walls of the giant hole. I've never seen anything quite like that.

To prepare for Iran's opening to the world, he was building in this upscale neighborhood where he lived. He said he got the money from various investors, including some of his wealthy neighbors.


EBRAHIM POURFARAJ: (Through interpreter) Every day, look down to see, you know, how actually this progress.

INSKEEP: Three years later, we asked Pourfaraj to meet us at the construction site again. So much has changed in the world that we really didn't know what to expect, wouldn't have been surprised to find the project stopped. And yet.

This looks a little different than the last time you showed it to me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Farsi).

KING: So is the hotel finished now?

INSKEEP: No, no, no, no, it's not finished, but the underground parking garage is done. That giant hole is filled. And the structure now rises several floors into the air. And the workers are going higher. This project has been badly delayed, Noel, yet Pourfaraj insists he still means to finish this hotel skyscraper, which was designed by a famous architect, the late Zaha Hadid.

Have you changed your business plan at all as the political situation has changed?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Farsi).

POURFARAJ: (Through interpreter) There was no change being done, actually, to the whole project. And they continued with the same shareholders and the same amount of money which has been invested.

INSKEEP: How could this possibly make economic sense?


INSKEEP: We saw how when we squeezed into an orange steel cage - a construction elevator - and rode to one of the higher floors. The floors were all concrete for now - no windows, everything open to the smoldering sunny afternoon. And we looked out over the city where it leans on the slopes of a mountain range.

We have a view of a good part of northern Tehran. And we know this building is under construction, but there's a building under construction. There's another. There's another. There's another - five different yellow construction cranes. What is happening in this area?

POURFARAJ: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "It's the most prosperous part of Tehran," he explains.

What does it indicate that there is so much construction and growth in this part of Tehran and so much economic trouble elsewhere in Iran?

POURFARAJ: (Speaking Farsi).

INSKEEP: "Iran is a rich country," he says. Sanctions have cut off many oil exports, but some people still prosper even if the less wealthy struggle. And this, Noel, has been one of our impressions moving around Tehran. Iran's economy has been crushed. We've even heard stories of people working their jobs without being paid. Yet, the upper parts of society have so far protected themselves.

KING: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

KING: Steve Inskeep is reporting this week from Tehran.


KING: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.