The second-floor office in scruffy downtown Tehran is modest. Books line the walls, alongside framed coloured scrolls from the Koran. Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei stare down grimly at the visitor. On the opposite wall hangs a photo-portrait of Hassan Nasrallah, the firebrand cleric and Hizbollah leader.
My host is Hossein Shariatmadari, the much-feared editor and commentator at Kayhan, mouthpiece of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalists. (He prefers the term “principleists” but I point out the term will not pass FT house style.) He is a short, balding man with piercing eyes and a smooth grey beard. His prose is said to be elegant but withering.
Iran’s foreign minister, the US-educated Javad Zarif, once complained that a Kayhan commentary criticising his role in the nuclear negotiations had triggered such severe backache that he was confined to a wheelchair for several days. When I mention this to Mr Shariatmadari, he emits a loud chortle.
Our conversation is a reminder that not everyone shares the mild euphoria sweeping Tehran after this week’s interim agreement between Iran and world powers on curbing its nuclear programme. Nor should we assume that Iran’s fractious relationship with the rest of the world will end soon.
Mr Shariatmadari, who was arrested and tortured in the last days of the Shah, preaches radicalism at home and abroad. Radical Islam knows no borders, he says. The Arab revolutions are not an Arab awakening. “It is an Islamic awakening,” he says.
As for the US, there are too many sleights, too many injustices to offer any hope of rapprochement. The US-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953; the “ruinous” oppression of the Shah; the nest of spies in the US embassy in Tehran; Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war; the 1987 downing of an Iranian civilian airliner over the Gulf; and latterly sanctions that have severely squeezed Iran’s economy.
Mr Shariatmadari, a student of history, does not believe Tehran was forced into negotiations by its own weakness. He epitomises how hardliners view the trajectory of the world since the 1979 Islamic revolution: “Then we did not own anything, now we have everything. We are among the top 10 most technologically advanced countries in the world and we are a regional power – and our enemies are in a very weak position.”
Right now the hardliners are biding their time, having suffered a decisive defeat in June’s presidential election. President Hassan Rouhani – who completed his first 100 days in office this week – is more media-savvy than his populist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, who once threatened to wipe Israel off the map.
Educated Iranians look on the eight-year Ahmadi-Nejad regime with a mixture of horror and embarrassment. Horror at the self-inflicted damage brought about by wrong-headed economic policies that have quadrupled inflation in three years and wasted $600bn of oil revenues – about $8,000 per person. Embarrassment that a proud nation with a sophisticated culture should have become so isolated. As one government adviser said: “Ahmadi-Nejad was clever but was not well-read – a dangerous combination.”
An artist, desperate to share her optimism about a better future for Iran, says the past three months have been a revelation. “Even the most ignorant have become philosophers. We have moved from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.”
There are so many friendly faces, so many oversized meals and so many good jokes (“What are you doing in Iran?” asked one security guard. “Don’t you have a job to do?”) that it seems unfair to point out that not all runs smoothly in Tehran.
Iranians hate being pinned down. Answers to questions either last 20 minutes or are confined to a single enigmatic sentence. As one Tehran businessman with close connections to the regime explained: “You westerners like black or white, or yes or no. But this is the Middle East, where everything is grey. We prefer: it depends, perhaps, maybe – or simply Inshallah (God willing).”
Time is also an elastic concept. After being given the runaround ahead of an interview with Mr Rouhani, our Tehran correspondent finally demanded a 300 per cent guarantee on an 8am encounter. The reply? “We cannot do 300 per cent, we can only offer maximum 90 per cent. Maybe we can offer 100 per cent, but only after the sanctions are lifted and we can import it.”