TEHRAN -- Elections are scheduled in Iran for June 14, the first presidential balloting since the disputed 2009 vote. Iran’s Guardian Council, an oversight body, is expected to release the list of vetted candidates this week. The Times sought out the views of several Iranians as the country awaits the final list of candidates.
Rafsanjani supporter: “Freedom should be sacrificed for bread”
A book seller, a lifelong advocate for individual rights, says now is not the moment to fret about such existential concerns.
“I am not as worried about freedom of speech as I was when I was younger,” explains Hamid Tabrizian, 65, a compact man with a protruding belly, seated in his cluttered shop in a busy arcade amid stacks of secondhand books and magazines, many from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
“Now, we need bread and business to create jobs for these huge numbers of unemployed people,” adds Tabrizian, offering a visitor steaming tea and a seat on a pile of books.
Nearby, other shop owners, visibly fed up with the nation’s leadership, mutter curses about politicians and try to hush the bookseller’s musings on the upcoming presidential race.
“Freedom should be sacrificed for bread,” continues the undeterred Tabrizian, a native of Tabriz, a city in the northwestern province of East Azerbaijan. “Political development and democracy are not urgent and can wait. Economic development is the top priority.”
The venerable book retailer says he knows the man for the job: ex-President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has signed up as a prospective candidate in next month’s presidential election. Reformers have rallied around Rafsanjani’s candidacy, as has Tabrizian, who commutes each day via subway from the capital’s outer reaches to his chaotic but cozy shop near Enghelab (Revolution) Square.
Like others, Tabrizian acknowledges that Rafsanjani’s previous presidential tenure (1989-97) had many blemishes, including crackdowns on dissidents at home and assassinations of regime opponents abroad. But he recalls how Rafsanjani, known as a pragmatist, opened up the economy to foreign investment and tried to persuade the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni to accept a cease-fire during the brutal 1980s war with neighboring Iraq.
“He is a man of peace and detente and business,” Tabrizian says of the ex-president, now 78, who is also among Iran’s richest men. “He has reinvented himself.”
So has the book vendor. As a youth, Tabrizian says he was jailed for six months simply for reading Marxist books. Like many leftists, he welcomed the overthrow of the U.S.-backed monarch, only to be disillusioned when the clerics consolidated control and restricted freedoms.
“It turned out to be bad for intellectuals,” says Tabrizian, who says meager sales from the book shop supplement a pension from his former job as a customs officer.
“I have to make myself busy and earn enough to add some butter to my bread,” explains Tabrizian, a father of two adult children. “Of course, I have always loved books.”
He recalls the Rafsanjani presidential tenure as a thriving era when Iranians enjoyed considerable purchasing power without today’s galloping inflation, spurred in part by Western-led sanctions. A Rafsanjani administration, he says, would endeavor to improve relations with the United States, as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, drawing foreign investment back to Iran.
“Yes, Mr. Rafsanjani was despotic at times, but there is no other alternative to save Iran from the dire economic situation we face now,” the book merchant says. “Though I dislike Mr. Rafsanjani, he is now the only hope for this country.”
Mashaei supporter: Casting back to Persia's ancient glory
Ali Sabzevari confides that he has applied to immigrate to Australia, hopeful of finding the economic security that eludes his family in their homeland.
“My wife keeps on attending English classes,” says Sabzevari, 33, who shuttles daily between a print shop and his family’s publications office. “But I don’t have time. I have to work and be the breadwinner for my family any way I can.”
He wears a tie, still an unusual adornment these days in Iran, where the ruling clerical establishment frowns upon the Western flourish, denounced as “westoxification” in the first decade after the revolution.
He and his father are fervent Iranian nationalists and avid promoters of the nation’s pre-Islamic history, including the reign of Cyrus the Great, who ruled a vast empire in ancient times. Nationalist and historic themes often figure in the family’s publishing content, primarily a monthly puzzle magazine. But Iran’s economic free fall has battered sales and hopes, prompting Sabzevari to consider emigration, along with his wife and 3-year-old son.
His favored presidential candidate, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, is also an outspoken Iranian nationalist, a fact that rankles Iran’s clerical leadership. Hard-liners have branded Mashaei the leader of a “deviant” current that exalts Persia’s pre-Islamic glory days over its more recent Islamic heritage.
Four years ago, Sabzevari says, he voted for the reformist presidential candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who remains under house arrest. Mousavi lost to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a contest marred by allegations of vote rigging that spurred mass protests. The reformist “Green Movement” was crushed, many of its followers jailed.
Ironically, Ahmadinejad is the patron of Mashaei, who is the president’s top aide, in-law and a friend for almost three decades. Still, Sabzevari sees the charismatic Mashaei as a transcendent figure capable of modernizing Iran and standing up to the religious establishment. He is keen to attend rallies featuring his favored candidate.
“I just hope somebody else will represent some of the aspirations of the middle class and open-minded walks of society,” says Sabzevari. “At least Mashaei will try to change things.”
Velayati supporter: Suspicious of the West
On the podium, a succession of hard-line speakers is outlining the preferred qualities of a presidential hopeful in next month’s election.
“If any candidate says he wants detente with the West, then he is not a proper candidate,” lectures Mohammad Mohammadian, the top university liaison for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Iran is not creating any tension so we don’t need a detente policy. Our enemies are creating tension. They need to make a detente.”
Among the many academics seated in the audience at Tehran University’s Allameh Amini Auditorium is Prof. Mohammad Reza Hosna, who holds a doctorate in cinema production management and teaches at Tehran Art University. Like other academics invited, Reza sports a thin beard. He sits alone, far from other attendees.
“I have studied cinema and am familiar with Western media,” Hosna, 47, politely tells a Times correspondent who approached to ask about the election. “I do not trust Western media, especially American daily newspapers. But I will answer your questions.”
In fact, Hosna is the only one of several academics present willing to speak with a reporter for an American publication.
On Hosna’s cellphone is a screen-saver image of the supreme leader, a sure gauge of his political bent.
Up onstage, a speaker is outlining more of the ideal candidate's essential attributes: He should be a practicing Muslim who fasts when required and says his daily prayers. He should also be wise, a competent manager and adhere to sundry guidelines laid down by the supreme leader, who has the last word on most policy issues in Iran. Clearly, absolute fealty to the supreme leader is an indispensable trait.
As various experts at the microphone continue in the same vein, Hosna says he knows which candidate fit the bill.
“I will vote for Ali Akbar Velayati,” the professor replied, naming Khamenei's senior advisor on international affairs, a loyal acolyte of the top cleric.
Velayati is one of three principal announced candidates close to the supreme leader, who are viewed as early favorites in next month’s balloting. The others are Saeed Jalili, the nation’s top nuclear negotiator, another loyal disciple of Khamenei; and Tehran Mayor Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, a hard-liner who has a considerable following in the capital but is less well known outside Tehran.
Why Velayati? “He is educated, polite and well-experienced,” replies Hosna.
Nonvoter: He puts his stock in literature, not the ballot
Each day, Mehdi Gholami guides his taxi through the bustling streets of the Iranian capital, his modest station belying a man of some refinement — a prolific (if unpublished) writer, onetime stage actor and passionate devotee of James Joyce, the Irish author. He awaits passengers outside what was once the upscale Intercontinental Hotel, reincarnated after the revolution as the subdued Hotel Tulip, after the bulb that symbolizes martyrdom in Iran.
“I know I am being watched, but I am no longer politically minded,” says Gholami, 61, who declines to elaborate on past political run-ins, beyond saying he was jailed briefly in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution.
He says he has no plans to cast a ballot in next month’s vote, flaunting his immunity to official exhortations that voting is a national duty, a revolutionary act of “resistance.”
“I no longer want to change the world,” declares Gholami, whose salt-and-pepper mustache dominates his round face.
Before the revolution, he says, he worked as an actor, a profession viewed with scorn by Iran’s post-1979 clerical elite. As performance gigs vanished, he says, he turned to sales, hawking lamps and heaters, candles and real estate, struggling to provide a living for his wife and four children. Near-bankruptcy drove the ex-thespian to the life of an erudite taxi driver.
His cab meanders daily across a broad swath of this sprawling capital, from the Museum of the Revolution east to the University of Tehran, site of large outdoor Friday prayers, often with a political message. Passengers, including many scholars, pay the equivalent of about 50 cents for the 10-minute trip. Some inevitably inquire about the well-thumbed paperback copies of “Dubliners” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” that the driver dives into while stopped at traffic lights.
“This part of the city is haunted by intellectuals,” notes Gholami, seated behind the wheel of his Iranian-assembled Peugeot Persia. In his free time, Gholami says, he has penned plays, self-help tracts and psychological treatises. His fascination with Joyce began when a client gave him some articles about the Irish writer, along with a translation of the concluding chapter of “Ulysses,” the 20th century masterpiece.
“I found Joyce’s work impossible to put down,” explains Gholami. “I tore up all my own writing. If he was a writer, then what am I?”
He identifies with Joyce’s characters as they wander through that vanished, melancholy Dublin of more than a century ago. His idol’s contentious relationship with Catholicism, the taxi man says, mirrors his own disquiet with Iran’s religious culture.
“Until the end of my life,” Gholami vows, “I will remain a taxi driver who keeps away from politics, but is an enthusiastic reader of James Joyce.”
Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.