At the National Theater in downtown Tehran, “Waiting for Godot” seems to have captured the mood of a country.
The Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett dramatized endless waiting in vain for someone named Godot. The play, translated into Farsi, got a standing ovation on the night I attended. The characters, in classic white suits, black top hats and black shoes, took endless bows as the audience whistled and clapped.
Iran is also waiting. It is waiting for the outcome of negotiations with six world powers over the country’s nuclear program. Iranians are waiting for an end to punishing international sanctions that sent prices skyrocketing. The country is waiting to open for business again after the punitive measures that have isolated Iranian banks, frozen oil assets and shut down most official international trade.
Some in the audience worried that Iran — like Beckett’s characters — will wait in vain.
“‘Waiting for Godot’ is our hope for future, and we never reach it,” says Sheyda Mejani, 22, a finance major who was standing outside the theater with her friends after the final curtain.
But Nadar Safari, another college student from the group, was more upbeat. She said parallels to “Waiting for Godot” are not quite right because she’s convinced Iran will reach a long-term nuclear deal.
Businessmen Are More Upbeat
Her opinion was also shared at the grand bazaar, the capital’s chaotic market of small shops and crowded walk ways. For many merchants, hope has made a comeback.
Amir Farhat sells carpets mainly to international clients. He served tea at his showroom as he explained that his business dwindled to a halt because sanctions blocked international banking transactions.
“We can say that sanctions made a disaster for the economy,” he said, as he pulled out carpet after carpet to tempt a visitor.
Since January, the economy has revived due to a six-month interim nuclear deal. Iran’s currency has stabilized, along with prices for basic goods. In recent weeks, at least three Iranian supertankers have set sail after a year at home ports.
But Farhat’s business has yet to revive. The block on Iran’s banks is still in place. For him, the economy is the same, but he says, “all of the people find a little hope.”
For Iran, the “psychological boost was tremendous,” said businessman Rouzbeh Pirouz after the interim deal was concluded in Geneva last year. He runs an investment firm in Tehran and he points out that Iran’s stock market is booming again, in a sign of confidence. But he cautions that “sanctions relief has been limited.”
“One of the things I always say about Iran is that it is a country with such vast potential, but we have to hope that it doesn’t always remain a country with vast potential,” he said with a wry laugh. Iranians want to get to work rebuilding the economy after the devastating damage of the sanctions, but there are still barriers.
Visiting Trade Delegations
It is still nearly impossible to transfer money, so international trade is constrained despite European trade delegations that have swarmed into the capital recently.
“It’s exploratory at this stage,” he said of the business delegations that arrive each week.
“Nobody wants to lose the edge” if Iran opened for business again, but that requires a long-term nuclear deal, he added.
But Iran’s leadership, particularly Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani is committed to reviving the economy and that is tied to nuclear negotiations.
“Two-thirds of our population is under the age of 40. They need jobs, they need opportunity. They need income to be able to build their lives,” said Pirouz. “The government recognized that unless it does that we are faced with a major problem.”
Rouhani came to office with a decisive vote last year. He is said to be a pragmatic cleric with a long resume in Iran’s Islamic revolution. That gives him credibility with conservatives as he reaches out to reformists.
His election opened the way for the most serious nuclear talks in years, said Saeed Laylez, an economist and a reformer. He believes Rouhani is the only Iranian politician who can end Iran’s waiting
“Mr. Rouhani is Mr. Godot and he is coming. He came, actually,” said Lalez.
Rouhani’s hard-line critics have done their best to sow suspicion over talks with the U.S., but Rouhani’s election reflected support for engagement with the west.
“He is the right man for the right time as far as Iranian politics goes,” said Kevan Harris, an Iran scholar from Princeton University who was recently in Tehran.
Harris says Rouhani is building on his election mandate. He is a political operator, says Harris and diplomats in the capital, rather than an ideologue.
“He seems to be a lot better at keeping and maintaining a large political coalition, which to do anything in Iran, you need a coalition to do it, you can’t just make a decision and it happens.”
Rouhani will have to keep his coalition on board for the next round of nuclear talks when even tougher compromises are expected. Meanwhile, Iran, like the characters in Godot, are waiting.