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.”
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