It's election season in Iran, too

The World
Mostafa Kavakebian speaks at a reformist gathering in Tehran.

Mostafa Kavakebian speaks at a reformist gathering in Tehran.

Marco Werman

In the Islamic Republic of Iran, everyone knows who is in charge.

The reminders are ever present in Tehran. On billboards, public buildings, street signs, and hanging on office walls, there are portraits of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei has a gray beard, a grandfatherly smile and a black turban on his head, which signifies that he’s a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad.

For all intents and purposes, Khamenei runs the show in Iran. He is the ultimate authority on pretty much everything from politics to religion, economics to social matters.

Nonetheless, some Iranians are still hoping for change later this month at election time. There are two elections coming up, in fact, one is for parliament. The other is for the Assembly of Experts, a powerful panel of clerics tasked with choosing the next supreme leader.

At a mosque in a well-to-do part of north Tehran last week, supporters of the reformist camp gathered to hear speeches about the upcoming elections. The crowd was mixed, men and women, people in the 20s and up.

The final speaker on this Friday afternoon was Mostafa Kavakebian, the founder of Iran’s Democratic Party and a reformist candidate for parliament himself.  

Kavakebian told the crowd that the hardliners want the people in this room to stay home on voting day.

“The revolution belongs to us all,” he said. “We are upset by the disqualification of reformists. This is a process though,” Kavakebian added.

“Everyone needs to get out there and vote, God willing."

As the crowd started filing out of the mosque, we spoke with a 25-year-old woman named Parisa, wearing a black knit headscarf and a hip maroon jacket. She was happy to chat, even though we were quickly surrounded by a group of men wanting to listen to all that was being said.

“Being a reformist means hoping that Iran can develop better relations with other countries,” Parisa said.

“It’s about having peaceful dialogue with the rest of the world. We need this for the sake of security, for jobs, and for reforms. The situation has been really bad for the last 10 years.”

Parisa agreed with something said by the reformist candidate, Kavakebian, about how the current parliament in Iran is not representative of broader public.

“If 60 percent of people went out to vote, these parliamentarians would be ejected,” Kavakebian had said.

“That’s absolutely right,” Parisa said. “Unfortunately, reformists have been pushed out in recent years. We hope they can unify for this election and win a majority."

Realistically, supporters of the reformist coalition are discouraged after making serious political headway in the late 1990s, but little progress since.

Parisa said this time, it’s all about turnout.

“If we can get people to actually come out and vote, it will make a difference,” she said.  

She reckons that the nuclear deal won’t motivate a lot of people to go to the polls.

Before we parted ways, Parisa wanted to make one final point.

“Now, after President Rouhani went to the negotiating table and signed this [nuclear] agreement, I think that Iranians can be proud. And we are backed up by 2,500 years of history,” she said.

People like Parisa are particularly important players when it comes to the upcoming elections, says Robin Wright, a longtime Iran watcher and writer for the New Yorker. She says the young generation in Iran is very much connected with the rest of the world, and that it has some high hopes this time around.

“Expectations are especially higher after the recent nuclear deal, the lifting of sanctions and a re-engagement of Iran with the outside world. There are expectations that Iranians now want something more, much, much more after a long period of suffering,” Wright says.

Wright adds that Iran has always had a very feisty political environment. And this atmosphere is on full display right now, leading up to the elections.

“[Iran’s] parliament can be as combative as the Israeli Knesset or the House of Commons in Britain,” she explains. “There's often very dynamic, interesting debates on the floor of Parliament and that plays out even more broadly in the wider political climate particularly during elections.”

Wright adds that the upcoming vote for the Assembly of Experts is especially crucial. 

“The next Assembly of Experts, which is much like [the Vatican’s] College of Cardinals ... [is expected to] elect the current supreme leader’s successor and probably from among its [own] ranks,” she says.

Wright points out that Khamenei, the current supreme leader, is in his 70s and that he has had health problems. That's something likely to be on the minds of many Iranian voters as they make their decision at the polls later this month.