Hope, Apathy, and Disgust in Iran

Presidential voters talk about the stalled economy, unemployment, and the religious zealotry that has one young woman dreaming of life in the U.S.

By Stanley Reed

Iran's brand of democracy may be flawed, but many Iranians take voting seriously. On a scorching day, men dressed in their Friday best and women -- some in black chadors, others in jeans with loose-fitting head scarves and open shoes showing painted toenails -- turned out to cast their ballots for President.

The polling places, mainly in schools and mosques, were marked by the somewhat forbidding presence of uniformed police, soldiers armed with submachine guns, and plainclothes security people. There was some justification for the heavy security: A wave of bombings disrupted the campaign and resulted in at least 10 deaths.


  Voter turnout didn't seem heavy. Still, four polling places in three different areas of Tehran visited by this reporter were doing steady business. No voting pattern was possible to detect. The dozen or so voters I interviewed said they had chosen six different presidential candidates.

If none of the eight candidates gains a majority, there will be a runoff on June 24. While the polls vary widely and aren't considered reliable, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, the 70-year-old pro-business moderate, is considered the front-runner.

His most likely challengers are thought to be Mustafa Moin, former Minister of Higher Education, and former national police chief Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a fortysomething conservative. Moin is the main hope of the reform movement led by outgoing President Mohammed Khatami.


  One common theme that emerged from my interviews was concern about unemployment, particularly among Iranian youth. At a voting station outside the Imam Zadeh Saleh Tajrish shrine, a large blue-tiled mosque in North Tehran, I encountered Madjid, an 18-year-old who said he had been without a job for a year.

He left school several years ago to work as a welder, but lately has been spending his days in an unsuccessful quest for a job. The contractor who once employed him no longer had enough work, he said. The teenager currently shares a home with four other youths of the same age, also jobless.

Madjid's concerns didn't seem to influence his voting choice. He opted for the conservative Qalibaf, who hails from Madjid's home Khorrasan province. Madjid seemed to be a nice, clean-cut kid, but I got a sense from several other voters that young people with little to do are considered a blight on their neighborhoods. "Because of the social malaise, they use drugs," said Leila Marzani, a homemaker.


  Even in Fereshteh, a cool and leafy neighborhood high in the hills where apartments go for $1 million and up, the plight and worries of the country's youth were high on the agenda. Three male high school students, all sporting different variations of spiky haircuts, said unemployment was their key issue.

"We are very worried about jobs," said one, 18-year-old Kiarash. They had chosen Mustafa Moin, standard-bearer of the reform movement, which lately has taken a beating at the hands of resurgent conservatives. Moin has surged recently in Iran's notoriously unreliable polls, but the big question is whether the former professor's popularity among students and Tehran sophisticates will also extend to the provinces.

At the same polling site -- within a handsome marble-lined mosque -- I was approached by a woman who said she was accompanying her sister to the polls, but she explained that she saw no point in casting a ballot herself.

A Tehran University student, she voiced a long series of complaints -- including the country's divorce laws, which give guardianship of children to the man, and harassment by university security guards when she let her hair to peep out from under her head scarf. She also said she planned to join her two sisters in the U.S. upon completing her degree in computer science. "I never want to come back to Iran," she added.


  Interestingly, I met only one voter who openly said he had chosen Rafsanjani. That was 28-year-old Mohammad Ahmadi, who sells men's clothing from a bazaar stall. Others, who refused to disclose their choices, described them in general terms that nevertheless suggested Rafsanjani was their man.

Rafsanjani is disliked by many Iranians for alleged self-dealing and for being a key member of a widely unpopular regime. Those who have voted for him seem to be calculating that as a powerful and experienced insider he has the best shot at cooling down tensions with the U.S. and giving the economy a boost.

Ahmadi didn't seem to have any doubts that the wily former President, who first began opening up Iran's economy in the early 1990s, was the best choice. Said Ahmadi: "He will be successful because he was successful before."

Reed is BusinessWeek's London bureau chief

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