ANKARA (Reuters) - Morad Sabzevari was among thousands of jubilant Iranians who took to the streets to celebrate a nuclear deal with major powers in 2015. He expected it to end his country’s isolation, and even bring prosperity one day.
Sabzevari’s hopes were dashed on Tuesday, when President Donald Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from “a horrible, one-sided deal” and reimposing sanctions on Iran.
His tougher-than-expected tone rattled Sabzevari, 47, a school teacher in central city of Isfahan, criticized Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who overcame fierce opposition from hardliners to secure the deal.
“I am scared. I listened to Trump’s speech on English news channels last night ... It was a declaration of war against Iran. It means pressure. It means dark days and months are ahead of us,” Sabzevari said by telephone.
“What should I do? I have two children. Mr. President you failed.”
The nuclear pact, designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb, was thrashed out by the United States, five other world powers and Iran and traded a lifting of sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.
Trump said the accord, the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama, failed to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 and its role in conflicts in the Middle East, where it is involved in proxy wars with U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
Rouhani has sought to reassure ordinary Iranians, already deeply frustrated by high unemployment and low living standards, that Iran’s oil-reliant economy could withstand a return to the economic pressures that will follow Trump’s decision.
But Fariba Saravi, 26-year-old PhD student at Tehran Azad University, was pessimistic.
“I am tired of empty words, promises, lies ... Trump’s message was clear. We will be squeezed. We will be isolated again but this time with a crazy person like Trump, it will be worse than before (the deal),” she said.
Iran’s economy has continued to struggle despite the easing of sanctions from 2016. Average unemployment of 12 percent rises close to 30 percent among Iran’s restless youth - more than 30 percent of Iran’s 80 million population are aged 18 to 30.
In late December, Iranians staged nationwide demonstrations over poor living standards, calling on Rouhani as well as top clerical leaders to step down.
For many, the picture looks even grimmer after Trump’s decision and there is a risk the deal will collapse entirely even though European signatories are trying to hold it together.
“You know what? They did not have money to pay our salaries. Now it will be even worse ... God help us,” said factory worker Mostafa, 38, in the northern city of Noshahr.
“I have not got my wage in the past two months. Mr. Rouhani promised more jobs ... but now I will be jobless.”
Pressure will mount on the Iranian leadership when U.S. restrictions cut its oil exports that are the engine of Iran’s economy, raising the prospect of further unrest.
“Why should foreigners invest in Iran when we are trying to move our businesses to another country,” said a businessman, who asked not to be named, in the holy Shi’ite city of Mashhad.
“I am in the dried fruit export business. Since last night, I have been seriously thinking of moving to a neighboring country like Turkey.”
More Iranians could come to the same conclusion as sanctions bite. Many foreign firms have shunned Iran, in part due to the remaining sanctions unilaterally imposed by the United States over what it says are human rights violations, terrorism, and the dominant role of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Iran’s economy.
Younger, particularly urban Iranians, have wider concerns as their country is squeezed economically.
“I don’t care what politicians do. They are all liars. But now I almost have no hope for more freedoms, social, cultural and even political,” said Garshasb Amini, 19, in the central city of Yazd.
Rouhani, a longtime establishment insider who won the presidency in 2013 and 2017, was bolstered by the support of many Iranians yearning for freedoms.
But rights groups say there has been little, if any progress. Rouhani and his allies say hardliners, who dominate the judiciary and security services, are a roadblock to more freedoms at home.
Maryam Saberi, 51, who lives in Tehran’s affluent Zaferaniyeh neighborhood, has more pressing concerns.
“I could not sleep last night. I am so scared of Iran being attacked by Israel. I remember when Iraq bombed Tehran during the (1980-88) war … I don’t care about the nuclear program. I just want my country to be safe,” she said.
Hardliners are putting their faith in Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who, in Iran’s complex power structure, has the final say on matters of state.
“I don’t care what Trump does. My beloved Khamenei will lead us out of this as he has done in the past,” said Gholamreza Ashtiani, 22, a member of Iran’s volunteer Basij militia in the holy city of Qom.
“Death to America. Death to Israel,” he said.
Editing by Michael Georgy and Jon Boyle