Iranians say: “We went back”

Central Tehran is ablaze this week with posters and billboards for the six candidates in Friday’s presidential election, and the streets are packed with buses carrying supporters to campaign rallies, but it’s hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting, much less for any individual candidate.

Iranians will go to the polls in a special election to choose the successor to former president Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May.

The election comes at a critical time for Iran’s leadership. The economy has been weakened by years of sanctions, and under Raisi’s ultraconservative leadership, personal freedoms and expressions of dissent have been increasingly repressed. Yet the government is eager to persuade more Iranians to show up to the polls in large numbers because voter turnout is seen as a measure of its support and legitimacy.

That could be a challenge, after years of boycotts and voter apathy, judging from a small sample of interviews in recent days. Conversations with more than a dozen civil servants, students, businessmen and other ordinary men and women revealed a certain degree of weariness, even skepticism, despite the risks of speaking freely in Iran.

Even those who say they will vote – though they rarely want to say for whom – say they have little faith that their lives will change in ways that matter to them.

“We've gone backwards and we're crying inside; I cannot afford to buy the machines I need for my work,” said Ibrahim, 53, an industrial engineer who owns a cement company in the northern city of Tabriz and who, like most Iranians interviewed in the days immediately before the election, he was reluctant to give his full name for fear of retaliation from the authorities.

Iran's economy has struggled in recent years, partly due to sanctions imposed by the United States after the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also due to economic mismanagement by the country's religious and military rulers. Iranians are also angered by restrictions on their personal lives, particularly the requirement for women to wear the hijab, which has led to mass protests in 2022.

They have heard presidential candidates' promises of change from time to time, and they hear them again in full voice in this election. But in the past, at best, they have achieved some relaxations of personal liberties laws under moderate presidents such as Hassan Rouhani, or the reformist Mohammad Khatami, only to face a crackdown under their conservative successors, such as Raisi.

And they know that the final say on all matters in Iran lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that they have no influence on his decisions.

Since the riots in 2009 and 2010 over what were widely considered rigged elections, and those that were violently suppressed with executions and imprisonments in 2022 over the hijab, the protests have taken different forms. One of them is to boycott the polls altogether to show that people reject any candidate who is allowed to run by the government, which controls all aspirants.

This disaffection with Iran's current leaders emerges in many conversations with ordinary Iranians, although older ones like Ibrahim derive some satisfaction from their experiences in the early years following the 1979 Iranian revolution.

Ibrahim had stopped with his family to visit the shrine built south of Tehran to honor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ideological architect of the revolution, the seminal event of the last 50 years here and which still shapes domestic and foreign affairs of Iran.

The enormous gilded mausoleum, with its mosaic-covered domes and soaring golden minarets visible from miles away, stands in stark contrast to the poverty so many Iranians say they feel today, and although I visited it during a religious holiday, the vast complex and its numerous parking lots were almost empty.

“I saw two generations – I was 7 years old when the revolution came – the generation of the revolution and the generation after,” he said.

“After the revolution we saw more sacrifices, and everyone thought they were brothers and sisters, and there was this philosophy of martyrdom, of everyone ready to give their lives for the country,” he said, referring to the Iran-Iraq conflict that it ended in 1988 at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, although the actual number is unknown.

But now, if there was another war, “I don't think they would go and fight for the country.”

His children, he said, wanted to leave Iran to study. Her daughter, Faezeh, 21, who speaks English, was unequivocal: She wants to study artificial intelligence and engineering, and said she couldn't get the education she needs or secure a well-paying job after graduation if she stayed in Iran.

“I don’t think I have a good future here,” he said, adding that he would like to attend the University of Texas at Austin or Dallas. “We have a lot of resources and a lot of wealth in this country, oil and gas, but that doesn’t affect our lives.”

“We need more individual freedoms,” he added. Under Raisi, Iran stepped up censorship and prevented encryption on messaging apps. Many websites are now blocked in Iran and can only be accessed using a virtual private network or VPN

“I'm taking a course on artificial intelligence on Coursera and for that I need a VPN,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics. Why does the government care?”

But will he vote in the elections? She shrugged and shook her head.

Many young people expressed similar sentiments. In the Tajrish Bazaar in northern Tehran, where many women leave their scarves draped over their shoulders, only occasionally covering their heads, a brother and sister – he recently earned a pharmacy degree and she is planning to get one herself – they were looking at the shop windows together. They were reluctant to discuss the election.

“You know, we don’t even want to talk about politics,” said Pedran, 25, the pharmacist, who said he won’t vote “because we know we’ll be disappointed by all the politicians.”

Would you leave Iran? “Maybe, but honestly it’s difficult and our family is here.”

Those who feel most committed to voting are those who took part in the 1979 revolution, or at least have a memory of it from childhood, and often have worked in government for a long time. They also often fought in the Iran-Iraq war and feel deeply connected to the country's revolutionary identity.

Hossein Nasim, 56, who runs a small carpet shop in Tajrish Bazaar, says he is excited to vote on Friday. He spent seven years as a prisoner in Iraq during the war – he became a soldier at 17 – and has only one request from the next president: keep Iran out of war.

“Keep us away from any kind of invasion,” he said, adding that the leaders of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are “peace-loving people” who are trying to avoid conflict. He said Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led Iran's powerful Quds Force, responsible for Iran's external defense, and who the United States killed in a drone strike in Iraq in 2020, was the type of leader “who could organize people very WELL.”

General Suleimani, who the United States has described as a terrorist, was responsible for creating Iranian-backed armed groups throughout the Middle East that helped achieve Nasim's goal of keeping the war away from Iran. These groups – Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, and various militias in Syria and Iraq – give Iran plausible deniability as they launch attacks against Iran's enemies, including Israel and the United States.

Masumeh, 27, an accountant dressed conservatively in a black chador who had come with her 6-year-old son to pray at the shrine, appeared to be seeking the same sense of mission that both Mr. Nasim and Ibrahim, the industrial engineer from Tabriz, drew from the first days of the revolution.

Speaking about Ayatollah Khomeini, he said: “I am too young to remember the revolution, but I know that many young people followed him and that he strengthened Islam in Iran.”

“This revolution was like a miracle for Iran. He made Iran great and we should continue on his path,” she said.

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