It may be hard to believe—especially for Western observers who measure change in Iranian society by the extent of women’s hair showing under the veil—but many Iranians will not be looking primarily for justice, human rights, or social and personal freedoms when they go to the polls in the presidential elections this Friday. Many are willing to forgo those ideals in exchange for a healthy economy and a foreign policy that brings tranquility, not war.
It’s also hard to believe that it was only 20 years ago that a free press, social freedom, the rule of law, civil society, and accountability of the political, judicial, and security establishment for violations of human rights topped those same Iranians’ wish list when they stunned the world by electing reformist President Mohammad Khatami in a landslide.
Those days are gone. Reform is not even on the ballot in the May 19 vote. What happened?
The Green Movement happened. And the young who were a part of it paid a heavy price. Eight years ago, they nearly took the country to the verge of civil war and were ready to sacrifice their lives for their democratic rights, rights that they claimed hard-liners had hijacked by rigging the election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. In Tehran alone, as many as 3 million demonstrators poured into the streets to demand a recount. “Where is my vote?” became the slogan of the protests, which were soon brutally crushed, with dozens killed. Thousands were beaten and hundreds were arrested. Scores of activists and journalists fled to Europe and the United States, setting up “reformist” websites or joining media outlets such as the Persian-language services of BBC and Voice of America.
Demoralized, the young inside Iran retreated into a period of soul-searching. Those who participated in the Green Movement protests or watched with hope from the sidelines, or those who are voting for the first or second time now, are unwilling to venture into uncharted waters because they know they will lose. They are pragmatic and patient, and have learned that change comes slowly. For now, personal, social, and political freedoms are taking a back seat.
Thirty-nine-year-old Sahar (not her real name), formerly an active member of the Green Movement who was arrested and jailed during the crackdown, is now adamant that she is “not prepared to pay a price and spend one hour in jail.” She will vote for incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who is described as a moderate in the Iranian political context. While she still considers herself part of the Green Movement, Sahar will do no more than that, because she feels it’s no use. She no longer even uses social media as a platform to spread reformist ideas, and she claims that many of her peers share her position.
“We don’t have personal freedoms anyway, and we’ve learned to skirt some of the restrictions,” says Siavash, 28, pointing to his Bermuda shorts, which are technically not allowed in public. “It’s not a priority.” He says he will vote for Rouhani so “things don’t get worse.” What’s most important to him is boosting Iran’s relations with its neighbors and improving international opinion about his country. And he hopes foreign companies will invest in Iran. His father, an oil contractor, lost a great deal of money during Ahmadinejad’s two terms, when the United Nations slapped the world’s toughest sanctions on the country.