Iranians this week are preparing to vote in — or perhaps to boycott — a presidential election that many fear will only underscore their powerlessness to shape the country’s fate.
Hopefuls are running to replace the term-limited President Hassan Rouhani, whose promises of a bright economic future withered as Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers collapsed. The backlash of disappointment in Rouhani’s relatively moderate administration has given hard-liners an edge this time, analysts say, even as the US and Iran now negotiate a return to the accord.
Iran’s clerical vetting committee has allowed just seven candidates on the ballot, nixing prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies. The presumed front-runner has become Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s hard-line judiciary chief who’s closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
As Iran reels from the coronavirus pandemic, global isolation, sweeping US sanctions and runaway inflation, the mood among potential voters appears to be one of apathy. Tehran, the vast and churning capital, has been eerily quiet in the days leading up to the poll, with some Raisi campaign posters scattered around the city and none of the huge rallies that drew roaring crowds to the streets during past election seasons.
With just a few days to go until the vote, The Associated Press spoke to Tehran residents about their hopes and fears. Few expect the vote to ease the nation’s sense of crisis. Some say they’ll vote for Raisi, known for his televised anti-corruption campaign, to protest Rouhani’s failures. Others are undecided or plan to boycott the vote, saying they have no trust in the government to improve their lives.
“I’ve watched the presidential debates but didn’t see any of them offer real solutions,” said 30-year-old Masoumeh Eftekhari, six months pregnant and strolling through the shop-lined promenades of Tehran’s jam-packed Grand Bazaar. She pointed with astonishment to the skyrocketing prices of baby clothes. “It disappoints me, so I cannot say which candidate is my favorite. At the moment, none.”
Consumed by fear of future economic decline, Fatemeh Rekabi, a 29-year-old accountant, also believes there’s no candidate worth voting for.
“I don’t have any trust in the candidates because I don’t know what is going to happen next. What if the situation gets worse?” she asked. “Our people wouldn’t survive.”
Sasan Ghafouri, a 29-year-old who studied to become a lab technician but is now grinding out a living selling clothes at a Tehran mall, said he’s exhausted from work and disillusioned with electoral politics that deliver nothing.
“I come here at 9 in the morning and work until 9-10 pm, day in, day out. When I don’t have any time left to have fun or study, continue my education and pursue my dreams, what is the meaning of life?” he said. “At the moment, I can’t think about my dreams.”
Those staking their hopes on Raisi say they’re desperate for any change in their fortunes after watching their savings evaporate as the national currency, the Iranian rial, collapsed under Rouhani.
“Rouhani’s administration was full of disappointment and incompetence. I deal with finances because of my job and have witnessed the adversity facing our citizens everyday,” said Ali Momeni, a 37-year-old accountant at an upscale mall in west Tehran. He said he’ll throw his vote behind Raisi, who he hopes will “hire a powerful team of economic advisers (to) ... improve the country’s situation.”
Loqman Karimi, a 50-year-old porter pushing laden carts through the narrow alleys of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, also said he’ll support Raisi — not for his airy promises but for concrete things he’d already done as judiciary chief.
“Raisi reopened many bankrupt factories … which of the previous judiciary chiefs have done such a thing? None of them had done such a good job,” said Karimi. “Why should Iranian people be caught up in high prices? Why should they stand in lines to buy eggs and chicken meat?”
Although Iranians may disagree over whether and how to vote, they share a deep disenchantment with Iran’s status quo — but also vast aspirations for a somehow better future.
For some, that means longing for a return to the nuclear deal, the years of optimism when Iran was a prospect for foreign investors before then-President Donald Trump withdrew America from the accord and re-imposed sweeping sanctions.
“We have reached a point now that we wish we could return to where we were five and six years ago ... even if we can’t have things improved,” said Nasrin Hassani, a 34-year-old dressmaker at a Tehran mall. Others regretted the disqualification of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure, although marked by sanctions, violent upheaval and economic decline, now conjures nostalgia, they said.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, many said their dream was for Iran to become “a normal country,” free from sanctions, fear of war and the feeling of siege. Past elections in Iran have laid the ground for diplomatic negotiations and cultural openings, but moderate politicians say that’s unlikely if Raisi wins.
“I just want the next president not to mess with other countries and the other way around,” said Rekabi, the young accountant. “We are really fed up. ... We don’t deserve to live this difficult, listless and awful life.”
Such a grim assessment already has prompted hundreds of thousands to leave the troubled country and try their luck abroad.
“Those who have the means are leaving here. Many of my friends are leaving Iran,” said Hassani, the dressmaker, who’s still undecided about the vote. “I just hope things will become easier so that people will want to stay.”