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Reportage. On Friday, Iran will choose its next president: the sitting “reform” candidate and an ultra-conservative unknown. Abstention from young people could be high.

Iranians disillusioned by options, skeptical of change

We are steps away from one of the side entrances of the labyrinthine Tehran bazaar, near the Khayyam subway stop. It’s just before lunch. The streets are crowded with people on their way to the market. Here, in a small teahouse hidden under a brick porch, calm and tranquility reign.

Some old folks chat with their neighbors. The younger people keep their heads down, focusing on their phones. From time to time, they casually raise their heads to scan the TV. For days, programming has been monopolized by the great event tomorrow, May 19: the Iranian presidential elections.

The candidates are the outgoing president, the centrist-reformist Hassan Rouhani, who aims to capitalize on the nuclear deal struck in the summer 2015 and the subsequent “openness” outside this country of 80 million people, and Ebrahim Raisi.

Until a few weeks ago, Raisi’s name was not known among most of the 56 million potential voters, in spite of his outstanding curriculum.

He is a pupil of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is a former chief prosecutor, head of the Special Court which supervises the actions of the clerics, and a member of the assembly of experts (the entity that elects the supreme leader). In the ‘80s, he was co-responsible for the killing of thousands of dissidents. Since March 2016, Raisi is the guardian of Iran’s most important shrine, the one dedicated to Imam Reza in Mashad, and is the head of Astan Quds Razavi. On paper, this is a religious charitable foundation, but in reality, it is an empire of $15-20 billion, with interests in all economic sectors.

Both Rouhani and Raisi have decided to end their election campaigns in Mashad. Wednesday, before the 24-hour campaign stop before the elections, they challenged each other with crowded squares, promises, and empty phrases.

President Rouhani insists on a binary reading on the absolute alternative. He said in Isfahan on Sunday: “Hand in hand, we destroyed walls and built bridges. We will not allow them to destroy bridges and build walls.” He reiterated this message yesterday in Mashad: “we will not allow a return to the past.”

It is either him or the return to power of the most orthodox “principled,” the establishment component — from the Revolutionary Guards to conservative hawks — that only care about protecting the principles of the ’79 revolution and their own interests, avoiding as much as possible foreign “contamination.”

But some do not believe in binary readings. “For me, there is not much difference between the two,” says twentysomething Mohammed [not his real name], while aspiring from the water pipe’s mouthpiece.

“I will not vote because I do not like the government. I do not like the fact that a hundred mullahs decide the fate of millions of people. I do not like that they deprive us of all freedoms. None of the candidates is willing to give me the freedom I want, not even Rouhani, no matter what he says. I will not vote.”

His is a particular perspective: He is a PhD student (“Study of Human Resources Management”), and he spent two years in Manchester, England, “where I experienced freedom.” Yet abstention could be the choice of many.

Lawyer Marzieh Mohebbi says: “For Rouhani, the real danger are the many undecided. And the disappointed.” He welcomes us in her office in Mashad, in the northeast of the country, about 10 hours by train from Tehran.

On her large desk, dozens of folders are maniacally aligned. They are the court cases of “unjustly” imprisoned women, which are being carried out by 200 female lawyers of the NGO she heads, Soura. “People are disillusioned, tired of politics,” Mohebbi adds. And tired of Rouhani.

The president based his entire campaign on the nuclear agreement. But the promised benefits are slow to arrive. The economy is growing at around 5 percent per year, oil production rose to 2.5 million barrels a day, and inflation has dropped from 35-40 percent, during President Ahmadinejad’s tenure, to 10 percent now. But the cost of living keeps going up. So does unemployment, now at 13 percent, with even higher figures for women. And among young people, it is 65 percent of the population.

In Marzieh Mohebbi’s opinion, Rouhani should be supported, however: “These are crucial elections. We have to defend a phase that began four years ago.” The director of Soura blames the previous administration and the international context for the lack of success: “That poorly led government lasted eight years, during which the country was almost brought to ruin, but also foreign countries bear some responsibilities, because they applied unjust sanctions.” For her, the economic well-being “is generated by world peace,” and Rouhani’s most important contribution was to “promote the idea that diplomacy is more useful than conflict.”

She doesn’t hide the fact she will support him. But she acknowledges and fears the strength of the challenger Raisi, who is going up in the polls.

“Here in Mashad, the conditioning by the ultra-conservative establishment is very strong,” says Nasser Amoli, political activist and familiar face of the reformist camp. “There is the sanctuary” managed by Raisi, and “there are very strong economic interests. The municipal elections [which provide context to the presidential elections] are controlled by Ahmadinejad’s cohort. And then there is the influence of the city imam,” Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, Raisi’s father-in-law and close adviser to Khomeini.

“An environment where prejudice, ignorance and parochialism prevail over rationality and pragmatism. For us reformists, it is a kind of prison.” Amoli is fighting for Rouhani’s second term: “Four years ago, we supported him to normalize the state of things, to recover the years lost with Ahmadinejad. Rouhani did it. Now, we expect he will continue his reform agenda.”

Even the general secretary of the “New Society of Muslim intellectuals,” Tahereh Rahimi, believes that Rouhani is the best candidate.

“In recent decades, Iran has changed a lot, it has progressed, it has been industrialized, but it remains a highly religious country; we need someone who knows the two sides, the outside world and our tradition. Rouhani can combine them.”

Rahimi adds: “He is the only one who can provide new opportunities and rights for women, so we can get equal opportunities not only from the regulatory point of view, but social as well.”

Antonia Shoraka, film critic and head of the Department of Italian Studies of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran, seems more skeptical. I met with her at the 30th International Book Fair that ended on May 13 in Tehran. “Rouhani focused on international policy, where he has been successful, but in internal affairs, he did not do much.”

Some people in Iran believe he has had to accept an “exchange” with the supreme leader and the hawks: the green light on the nuclear deal in exchange for giving up on the civil and social rights reforms.

It is certainly true that the Rouhani administration has shirked its responsibility on human rights. “Little has changed for the publication of books and movies. As for women’s rights, for now it is just talk. Nothing concrete,” says Shoraka.

She believes Rouhani will be re-elected. But she does not seem enthusiastic. “I’d like to be different, but we make do with the minimum now.”