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.