This Iranian artist welcomes the kinder, gentler edge to Tehran's diplomacy

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

I'm Aaron Shachter in for Marco Werman. This is The World, a co-production of BBC World Service, PRI and WBGH in Boston. American-Iranian relations have been dismal for decades but there's now a flicker of hope that change might be possible. Multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program are slated to start tomorrow in Geneva. On the eve of those talks we got to wondering what's bubbling below the surface in Iran on the culture scene. Haleh Anvari is an Iranian artist and writer. She divides her between London and Tehran.

Haleh Anvari: Whenever anybody asks me about Iran, about underneath I think you're expecting us to be talking about underground bands and nose jobs and sex change operations; the kind of stories you generally get from the Western press because they are terribly colorful. But I went back for the Iranian elections, the last one in June. I went specifically not to vote, I confess, because I felt very slighted by the previous election and I wasn't going to take part of it. What astounded me, and that is what is bubbling underneath I realize now, was the incredible political maturity of the young generation. The ones who don't have the baggage of the revolution, the ones who don't have parents like I had who constantly went on about Mossadegh and what happened to him in the coup that the United States conducted with the help of the British. They are aware of all this but they are showing this incredible pragmatism so they flocked to the ballot box again. Since then seeing what Mr. Rouhani and his team have achieved even in a change of attitude. I have to say this: I bow down to their greater judgments.

Schachter: One of the things that we notice most here from the United States is a difference in tone coming from the government. Mr. Ahmadinejad was very bellicose and used very colorful and sometimes frightening language.

Anvari: We would say very rude language. During the eight years of Mr. Ahmadinejad the whole language of the country changed to this sort of feisty, street kind of language which, as you say, if it was colorful for you I can assure you it was 50 times more colorful and astounding by Iranian standards. You never expected the kind of allusions that he used to be used by a man of politics. So, yes, definitely. The tone has changed. [??] what I call a 'politesse' is very, very nuanced. It's a form of dealing with the world in ways that are polite, it doesn't say what you need directly, that is politeness, it tries to save you face, it tries to keep you secure. It has many, many elements in it. What I see now Mr. Rouhani, Dr.Zarif and Rouhani's other team is not what they're referring to as a 'charm offensive' which I also see as being a little bit cynical, but more a return to how I would expect my country to be presenting itself, to be representing me, this nation that is 3,000 years old with this incredible history.

Schachter: As you say the tone is changing, the mood is changing but one thing remains which is a pretty big deal: the international economic sanctions pushed by the United States. What has that meant for artists working in Iran? Does that affect you at all?

Anvari: It affects us in every way like it affects everybody. For us the sanctions, apart from making things expensive, it also means that the country goes into a kind of a Cold War mode which means that freedom of expression becomes less available to us.

Schachter: Do you feel the changes in the air now in the artists' circles or just in the family circles that you travel in?

Anvari: What you see in the media you can feel it. It's very tangible. There's been some serious news: they've freed a number of political prisoners. In terms of art there is House of Cinema which is a small, little house in central Tehran almost innocuous but a great place for documentary makers and filmmakers to congregate and show each other films and have quick Q&As. That was closed down about three years ago. Soon after Mr. Rouhani came into office this House of Cinema was opened. We're seeing quick, tangible results which are very heartening.

Schachter: Haleh Anvari is an Iranian artist and writer. She divides her time between London and Tehran. A real pleasure speaking with you.

Anvari: It was a pleasure to be here.