Middle East
1:28 am
Wed June 12, 2013

Despite Limited Election Choices, Iranians Eager To Be Heard

Originally published on Thu June 13, 2013 3:53 am

The day we arrived in Iran's capital, Tehran, billboards along the drive from the airport to the city center were already telling us something about what's happening in the country as it prepared for Friday's presidential elections.

We see typical highway signs for Sony Ericsson, but also billboards featuring the face of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. We also see and drive under giant signs that are from Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging people to vote.

Iran's supreme leader has predicted his country will produce an "epic" turnout, a big endorsement of the Islamic Republic.

Khamenei calls for that endorsement at a time of intense pressure on the country, both internal and external. Its powerful clerics have used intensive security measures after a wave of protests four years ago and is now carefully managing the upcoming polls. Eight candidates won permission to try to succeed the controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

And the election has ramifications far behind Iran's borders. The country faces international isolation over its nuclear program, which continues to confound and frustrate the West even as the U.S. and EU apply ever-stricter sanctions.

It will also affect Iran's key role as a regional player, most notably in Syria, where Iran backs the regime of Bashar Assad.

Dissatisfaction With Iran's Direction

When the last presidential election was disputed in 2009, it was Khamenei who ordered millions of protesters to stop marching in the streets. Security services jailed many Iranians.

Four years later, Khamenei and key officials still preside over the struggling capital. U.S.-led economic sanctions linked to Iran's nuclear program have hammered the country. Analysts also blame declining oil revenues and poor economic management.

You can measure the damage by visiting Tehran's money changers, where people trade thick stacks of Iran's currency. The rial has spiraled downward in value: These days, a cup of espresso can cost up to 60,000 rials, or nearly $5.

Many people have traded rials for gold coins or American dollars.

With each bit of news, the currency shifts, and the man behind the counter says his job is stressful. He says he is worried all the time. When he goes home, he says, he argues with his family.

At the window of a different cash exchange, a pharmacist making a transaction shrugs off the trouble. There are a lot of problems because of the sanctions, he says, but business goes on.

Yet that doesn't mean he's happy with his country's direction. We ask if he is following the election; he responds with a laugh.

The man still thinks about the disputed election in 2009, which gave Ahmadinejad a second term.

"The president," he says, "is not a real president, but this is just my opinion."

Elections Brings Out Critics

Iranians are now free to criticize the departing president, who's seen as having fallen out of favor with the supreme leader.

But this potential voter says something bolder. Despite the billboards urging him to vote, he says he may not. And though some billboards declare, "We have the right to choose," he feels he does not.

He says none of the candidates are interesting to him, and as a result he's not likely to vote.

"All of them just selected by the government," he says.

The government approved only 8 out nearly 700 would-be presidential candidates. Those not deemed qualified to be president included a former president.

Election time is a time of relative openness in Iran's political debate, though always within limits. The government is on guard against a repeat of the 2009 protests. Two candidates declared to be defeated back then are still under house arrest. Many students at universities, traditional centers of activism, were sent home early this year.

Yet at a campaign rally, some chanted the name of a defeated candidate from four years ago. At another rally, people chanted for political prisoners to be freed. And on the streets, people keep finding ways to speak.

In Tehran's old bazaar, horse-drawn carriages roll by, and colorful tiles cover the buildings. We meet two men who sell cleaning brushes.

One says his income has stagnated, while the cost of his rental apartment soars, more than doubling in the past two years.

It is a busy day at the bazaar, and a crowd begins gathering to listen to our discussion about the election.

The men say they will vote, if reluctantly. It's a decision that matters. Voters who say they want to reform Iran's government have been weighing whether to vote, which effectively endorses the system — or sit out the election, which would let their more conservative opponents win.

Telling Their Stories

Now the whole crowd is engaged, and it's clear we're being watched intently. A man records the scene on his cellphone. A police station is nearby.

Yet people keep pushing forward, tugging my elbow, interrupting the interpreter, wanting to be heard.

Some in the crowd say they do favor certain candidates: Ali Akbar Velayeti, a former foreign minister; and two men who have been Iran's nuclear negotiators, Hassan Rowhani and Saeed Jalili.

Some voters support conservative candidates, who emphasize loyalty to the supreme leader, traditional roles for women, or resistance to the West. One man says he hates the U.S. for its pressure on Iran's nuclear program.

Other voters back candidates who are running as reformers, urging free speech or better relations with the West.

Better relations are exactly the desire of a former factory worker in the crowd who says he's now a street peddler. He favors better relations, even with the U.S., if it can help the Iranian economy.

And still more people wanted to be heard. One woman says she hasn't voted since the protests in 2009.

Then another woman says her husband is a disabled veteran of Iran's war against Iraq in the 1980s. And she also brings up that disputed 2009 election.

Her son was a protester, she says. He was arrested, and tortured.

She says she used to wear a chador — a conservative black garment that covers everything but the face — but, she says, she got so angry she stopped.

Police wade into the crowd just as she finishes talking.

The men in uniform break up the discussion, and briefly lead our producer and me to a police station. A commander politely acknowledges we'd done nothing wrong. He says he was just concerned that large crowds might turn violent.

Yet the intervention did not quite end the discussion. Even as we walk into the police station, one more woman follows us.

You never talked to me, she says. She wants to tell her story.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Iran is in the midst of a presidential campaign, with a vote coming this Friday - a moment that normally gives a country's citizens a right to be heard. But Iran's election comes as it faces international isolation over its nuclear program and four years ago, powerful clerics suppressed a wave of protest.

MONTAGNE: Now, the clerical establishment is carefully managing this election. Eight candidates won permission to try to succeed the controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Two have dropped out. Six remain in the race, and our own Steve Inskeep is in Iran's capital to watch.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So we're on our way into the center of Tehran. And the drive in from the airport has already told us something about what's happening in the country. We've seen typical highway billboards for Sony Ericcson, for example, but also billboards featuring the face of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. We have also seen, and driven under, giant signs that are from Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, urging people to vote in Friday's presidential election.

Iran's supreme leader has predicted his country will produce an epic turnout, a big endorsement of the Islamic republic. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls for that endorsement at a time of intense pressure. After the last presidential election, in 2009, millions of Iranians marched in protests, charging election fraud. Khamenei ordered them to stop. Police and protesters clashed, and many people were jailed.

Four years later, Khamenei still presides over a beautiful capital - and oh, the mountain range on the north side of Tehran has just come into view through the early morning smog - but also a struggling one. U.S.-led economic sanctions linked to Iran's nuclear program have hammered this country. Analysts also blame declining oil revenues and poor economic management. You can measure the damage by visiting Tehran's money changers, where people trade thick stacks of Iran's currency, the rial.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Counting in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Rials have spiraled downward in value. Many prices have doubled or tripled in a few years. It can now cost up to 60,000 rials to buy a cup of espresso.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: Many people have traded rials for gold coins or American dollars. The currency still shifts with each bit of news. And the man behind the counter says his job is stressful.

What do you mean, stressful?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's always worried.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: And he's shocked all the time.

INSKEEP: I go home at night and argue with my family, he says. At the windows of a different cash exchange, a pharmacist making a transaction shrugged off the trouble.

How's business been?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: As you know, because of the sanctions, there are lots of the problems. But, as you know, business is going on every day.

INSKEEP: Yet that does not mean he is happy with his country's direction.

Are you closely following the election, the presidential elections?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: For me, no. (LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The man still thinks about that disputed election in 2009, which gave Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term as president.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: True, yeah. I mean, the president is not a real president. But this is just my opinion.

INSKEEP: Iranians are now free to criticize the departing president, who's believed to have fallen out of the supreme leader's favor. But this voter says something bolder: Despite the billboards urging him to vote, he says he may not. And though some billboards declare "We have the right to choose," he feels he doesn't. The government narrowed down the potential candidates so much that those not deemed qualified to be president included a former president.

Is that part of the reason you may not vote this time?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yeah, of course, because none of them are interesting to be as a president of Iran, all of them just selected by the government.

INSKEEP: Just then, the cashier signaled the man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Excuse me.

INSKEEP: Oh, if you need to do your transaction, please go ahead. That's quite a stack of rials.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. So actually, I'm not just interested in order to vote again.

INSKEEP: Election time in Iran is often a time of relative openness. This year, it's also a time of great tension. The government is on guard against a repeat of the 2009 protests. Two candidates declared to be defeated back then, are still under house arrest. Many students at universities - traditional centers of activism - were sent home early this year. Some politically active figures declined to meet with a visiting American, saying they're being watched. Newspapers that favor reforming Iran's government are still publishing, but know they've been shut down in the past.

Yet, at a campaign rally, some chanted the name of a defeated candidate from four years ago. And at another rally, people chanted for political prisoners to be freed.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

INSKEEP: And on the streets, people are finding ways to speak.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: That was the sound of a street hawker in Tehran's old bazaar.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLLS)

INSKEEP: Horse-drawn carriages rolled by, and colorful tiles covered the buildings; though many products for sale were quite modest. We met two men who sold cleaning brushes. One said his income has stagnated while the cost of his rental apartment soars.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Two years ago, he paid for the rent 2 million rials, but this area now, he's paying 5 million rials.

INSKEEP: It went from 2 million to 5 million for the same ...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Five million, and his income is the same.

INSKEEP: It was a busy day at the bazaar, and a crowd began gathering to listen.

Are you following the presidential campaign at all?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: Yes. They are following, but it has no use.

INSKEEP: The men said they will vote, if reluctantly - a decision that matters. Voters who say they want to reform Iran's government have been weighing whether to vote - which effectively endorses the system - or sit out this election, which would let their more conservative opponents win.

Does any candidate excite you at all?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: No... no... no....

INSKEEP: Now, the whole crowd around us was engaged. By this time, it was clear we were being intently watched. A man held out a cellphone, making his own recording. A police station was nearby, yet people kept pushing forward, tugging my elbow, interrupting the interpreter, wanting to be heard. Some insisted they did favor candidates.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

INSKEEP: OK. So we have a Velayeti, a Rowhani and a Jalili.

INSKEEP: Those candidates are a former foreign minister, and two men who have been Iran's nuclear negotiators. Some voters supported conservative candidates who emphasize loyalty to the supreme leader, traditional roles for women, or resistance to the West.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: This voter said he hates the United States for its pressure on Iran's nuclear program. Other voters back candidates who are running as reformers, urging free speech or better relations with the rest of the world. Better relations were exactly the desire of a former factory worker in this crowd, who says he's now a street peddler.

You want to have better relations with other countries. Does that include the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: If it can help our economy, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Yes.

INSKEEP: And still more people wanted to be heard.

Are you going to vote?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Where have you been the last four years? the woman replied, saying she hasn't voted since the protests in 2009. Then, yet another woman said her husband was a disabled veteran of Iran's war against Iraq, in the 1980s.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: And she brought up the disputed 2009 election. My son was a protester, she said. He was arrested and tortured.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: She went on: I used to wear a chador - a conservative, black garment that covers everything but the face. But, she said, I got so angry, I stopped. Just after this was the moment when the police waded into the crowd. They broke up the discussion, and briefly led our producer and me to a police station. A commander politely acknowledged we'd done nothing wrong. He said he was just concerned that large crowds might turn violent.

Yet the intervention did not quite end the discussion. Even as we walked into the police station, one more woman followed us. You never talked to me, she said. She wanted to tell her story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Steve Inskeep is reporting from Iran this week, ahead of Friday's presidential election. You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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