I arrived in Iran on June 14, four days before the presidential election scheduled in the country. It may seem like a short time to take the pulse of a nation, but the consulate in Paris that granted me my visa Told me that my travel dates were non-negotiable, so I embarked on a short but fascinating trek to Tehran in an attempt to probe the mindset of ordinary Iranians as this crucial vote draws near.
Voters were called upon to nominate a new president to take over from moderate Hassan Rohani and this time the hardliners were given the winners. Severe penalties imposed under the tenure of former US President Donald Trump devastated the Iranian economy and gave weight to the ultraconservatives.
There, I first interviewed the former Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (you can see our interview here) which painted a grim picture of the current state of the country and its political system, the same system that had given him the presidency twice despite protests by large numbers of Iranians. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told me that Iran must be reformed immediately at all levels. A necessity that most of the people I met on site afterwards will also point out.
Living conditions are difficult in Iran and the situation has worsened considerably over the past decade. The authorities blame this economic paralysis on the international sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear program. But Iranians in general also point the finger at government mismanagement and corruption.
The national currency, the rial, has plunged to an all-time low against the US dollar. The prices have soared with 39% inflation expected this year and more than 4 million more people are estimated to have fallen into poverty.
The majority of Iranians I have met have told me that they are exasperated and do not trust politicians to defend their interests when they make decisions. Many of them told me that they would not vote.
This year, the electoral campaign took place in a special atmosphere. The streets seemed strangely quiet and political meetings were rare. Due to concerns about a possible peak in Covid-19 contamination and a slow vaccination campaign, the authorities had banned large gatherings. This did not prevent political posters from being released.
“The United States is not to be trusted”
If I wanted to have a clue of the more conservative path that Iran was about to take, I had only to look at the facades around me: the posters bearing the image of the general. Qassem Soleimani were ubiquitous. The senior Iranian commander had killed on the orders of former US President Donald Trump in January 2020. The man erected to the rank of hero symbolizes in the speech of those who hold the hard line, “the unwavering determination of the Iranian nation to stand strong in the face of Western oppression”. The ultraconservative turn the country would take was in part linked to decisions made thousands of miles away in Washington three years ago.
The withdrawal of the United States from the Iranian nuclear agreement decided by Donald Trump caused a shock wave that is still being felt today in this country of 83 million inhabitants.
The “maximum pressure campaign” led by Donald Trump struck ordinary Iranians in the first place and fueled the idea that the United States was untrustworthy. An argument long used by conservatives and hardliners who seemed the only ones interested in the presidential race this year, perhaps because they knew they were in the best position to win.
This situation was also explained by a set of factors and in particular, the intricacies of the Iranian power structure in which the Assembly of Experts has the last word on the candidates who can run for president. They were more than 500 including around forty women who wanted to compete. But only seven were ultimately allowed to do so, most of them representatives of the Conservatives. The reformists and the moderates had the impression of not having a real choice to the point of arousing in a good number of voters, an indifference for this ballot.
An uncertain future
On election day, the authorities extended the hours at polling stations. They remained open until 2 am while the public sector agents were apparently instructed to go and vote; otherwise they risked a fine.
The official results were marked by a historically low turnout of 48.8% and a record level of blank votes of 14.4%.
The ultra-conservative cleric Ebrahim Raïssi was declared the winner with 62% of the vote and he is now preparing to succeed the moderate Hassan Rouhani on August 6.
During his first press conference after the announcement of the results and shortly before my departure from the country, I asked Ebrahim Raïssi if he had a message to convey to the rest of the world on the future of Iran. He replied that priority would be given to domestic issues rather than foreign policy. His “Iran first” speech is reminiscent of the positioning of Western populists.
In inheriting a dire economic situation and widespread discontent, Iran’s next president will face daunting challenges. But its most important task will probably be to restore confidence among the Iranian people and to rally them to their vision for the future.
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