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.
One of the reformists’ most impressive achievements is that they have succeeded in uniting Iranians of various social, economic, and cultural backgrounds under one flag, eroding traditional divisions. The trend began in 1997, when leftists, secularists, and even monarchists and those who are disparagingly referred to as taghooti, or idolaters (people associated with the pre-1979 monarchy), took part in elections—many for the first time since the revolution—and voted for Khatami. They realized that the Islamic Republic was here to stay and they figured they might as well improve their lives under that system. Until then, they had taken pride in boycotting elections. A number of them refused to vote again after hard-liners prevented Khatami from achieving his promised reforms.
Pro-reformist voters are not expecting miracles in this month’s election. Rouhani’s main hard-line challenger is Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is a judge who currently runs the powerful Imam Reza charitable foundation in the holy city of Mashhad. Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and police chief, was also in the race but withdrew just four days before the election, throwing his support behind Raisi and thus strengthening the hard-line challenge to Rouhani. Rouhani and his reformist supporters have complained that powerful hard-liners—such as members of the Guardian Council, state broadcasts, and Tehran’s Friday prayer imam, who are appointed by the Supreme Leader—are mobilizing people against the president and in favor of Raisi. “The network is run by a political gang,” Rouhani said at a rally recently, referring to the state-run radio and television. For instance, the reformist daily Sharq charged that state TV only zooms on Rouhani himself at campaign rallies and does not show the huge crowds; and that it repeatedly advertises Raisi’s campaign schedules.
Raisi and other conservatives criticize Rouhani for failing to bring about the benefits that he promised would come from the historic 2015 nuclear deal, which ended a decade-long standoff with the West and partially lifted sanctions, pulling Iran from the brink of collapse.
Since the deal was signed, Iran has been able to export oil, which helped increase real gross domestic product by 7.4 percent over the past year, according to the World Bank. In a pro-Rouhani campaign message, senior reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh said inflation has come down from 35 percent before Rouhani took office in 2013 to 8 percent today, while the value of the rial has remained about the same as four years ago (the dollar soared about 400 percent under Ahmadinejad). Overall, the economy has grown from minus 7.8 percent four years ago to plus 5 percent today. However, economic growth has not led to a fall in unemployment, which officially stands at 12.7 percent (about 3.3 million people).
Rouhani blames factors beyond his control for these shortcomings. When he succeeded Ahmadinejad in 2013, he announced that the nation’s coffers were empty. Major Western banks are still reluctant to finance business deals. Foreign companies are also reluctant to invest because of the poor state of Iran’s banks (including a high number of nonperforming loans and weak central-bank liquidity) and interference in the economy by powerful hard-line institutions such as the IRGC, which are not accountable to the government but to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The lingering unilateral US sanctions are not helping either.
Iranians are frustrated that their living standards have not markedly improved and complain about joblessness, a weak rial and continued international isolation. Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful man, has also criticized Rouhani’s economic performance.
In a 25-minute campaign documentary, Rouhani tried to explain the problems he faces. For example, when he took office four years ago, he said, Iran was pumping only 45,000 barrels a day from an oilfield shared with Iraq in West Karoun, while Iraq, with the help of foreign oil companies—including Shell and British Petroleum—was pumping much more than its share. “You know how much oil we should be drilling? Over a million [barrels].… This joint field is getting empty. So what do we do? Who is going to invest? We need more than $200 billion in investment just for oil and gas.”
Much of the criticism comes from hard-liners—who are now referred to as “principlists”—and most of the scores of ordinary people interviewed for this article were sympathetic to Rouhani and said they understood that change cannot occur overnight and were grateful for the positive steps he has taken so far.
“The economy has improved, and business is picking up again. My father is very hopeful,” says Siavash. “There’s movement and he is happy with Rouhani. When Rouhani became president, I thought nothing would change.” But, he says, he was pleasantly surprised. “The rationale of Rouhani—even though he hasn’t done anything huge—is positive. He’s politically correct. His nuclear deal and his support for citizens’ rights are positive.” One reason Siavash says he is voting for Rouhani is because he wants Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to continue in his post.
Nima, a 26-year-old vendor at a clothing shop in central Tehran, also plans to vote for Rouhani, mainly to block Raisi from winning. Even Nima’s traditional religious family members, who live in Mashhad—where Raisi is from—and who are staunch supporters of Khamenei (also from Mashhad) plan to vote for Rouhani. “Who says people from a religious background only vote for principlists?” Nima asks. “The main thing is that the candidate is a clergyman and does not lie.”
Indeed, Rouhani’s supporters include people from diverse social, economic, political, and religious backgrounds, and the country’s divisions can no longer be classified into secular-liberal versus religious-conservative. Many factors, including migration from rural to urban areas and the rising adult literacy rate—from 47 percent in 1976 to 87 percent today, of a population of about 80 million—have contributed to these changes.
“Social background is decisive in the elections,” says anthropologist Nasser Fakouhi in an interview. In the absence of official statistics, particularly data on electoral trends and results, he says, “experts can only provide approximate analysis based on empirical evidence, case studies, and observations of our urban and rural societies.”
Young and median-age groups from middle- and upper-class urban areas appear to vote for both reformists and conservatives, he says. Those who are relatively poor but have average or higher education, such as urban workers and lower-level bureaucrats, are more likely to vote for reformists.
“We have to bear in mind that many people believe that Rouhani is not a real representative of reformists because of his neoliberal economic policies. The economic reforms they want are social justice and equality for all,” said Fakouhi, a Tehran University professor.
Others who tend to vote for reformists or moderates include people who lean toward a reformist Islam, as well as those who support the separation of religion from state and are more conciliatory toward the West. Leftists and those with centrist political inclinations vote for reformists or boycott elections altogether.
“The more the people have non-ideological and non-radical culture, the more they tend to vote for reformists and vice versa,” says Fakouhi. “Although giving a figure is too risky, it seems the percentage for both sides is the same—50/50. Some secularists who are against the Islamic state vote for reformists and some don’t. The majority of them are neoliberal intellectuals and educated people.”
“We also have the question of the influence of the general left,” he added. “Leftists, in the Western sense, are allowed almost no space in the media and the public sphere. Nevertheless, in recent years we have observed a very slight tendency of this group to participate in elections, especially in municipal elections, and no longer systemically boycott them.” Interestingly, Fakouhi says that the educated secularists who lean toward the reformist faction are, on some economic and social issues, politically closer to the right in the West, such as the Republican Party in the United States.
“In addition, due to the forced marginalization of the non-religious left—Marxist or not—the past four decades have seen an explosion of nationalistic ideas, neoliberalism, etc. These include political trends in universities and the general academic sphere, among intellectuals and other educated elites.” Fakouhi says.
“Although in contradiction with the stated aims and official discourse of the 1979 revolution, these rightist ideas are now becoming increasingly aggressive” and complicate “the electoral game because the right-left division does not correspond with the questions about social and economic policies. Most neoliberal economists are currently in the reformists’ camp, and many of the structuralist economists and left-wing economic theorists are found in the conservative camp,” he says.
The revolution has led to an enormous sociological change that has witnessed the “secularization” of a generation—from deeply religious and traditional backgrounds—that had strongly supported the revolution in its first decade. These people now make up part of the reformist camp and are supporters of Rouhani. There still is, however, a deep cultural divide, and great mistrust, between these people and the more ardently secular types who had been shunned by the system in the early days of the revolution and had for many decades simply dropped out or kept their heads down, if they didn’t flee the country.
In studying elections in Iran, little attention has been paid to this latter group: the pre-revolution “original” secularists and their offspring, or left-leaning and apolitical Iranians. Western media commonly lump them with the rest of the supporters of the reformists. A very large number of educated secularists from the middle and upper-middle echelons of Iranian society supported the overthrow of the shah in favor of a secular and democratic government and marched at the forefront of the revolutionary protests. But they were so consumed with the need to get rid of the shah that they failed to notice that, by the time the shah had gone into exile, religion had gradually seeped into the movement and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers had appropriated the revolution. The shah’s autocratic rule had left them with a choice between his feared Savak secret police and the clergy. Little by little, these ordinary Iranians were sidelined and came to be regarded as a threat, wrongly accused of being remnants of the old regime and too secular or too liberal to be trusted or integrated into post-revolution society.
After coming to power, Khomeini, branding the educational system as taghooti, set out to desecularize and de-Westernize it and bring it under clerical control. Many secular Iranians, including leftist activists and nationalists, were purged from universities. Some of the country’s best and most experienced professors, accused of not being devout Muslims or having leftist affiliations, lost their jobs. Secular Iranians started leaving the country in droves.
One of the people assigned the task of desecularizing the educational system was philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush. Some 20 years later, in an extraordinary political evolution many others would experience, Soroush was preaching separation of religion and politics and had become the intellectual leader of Khatami’s reform movement. Today, Soroush lectures at various universities in America after having been chased out of Iran by hard-liners. He has joined hundreds, perhaps thousands, of “dissident” (reformist) compatriots who have taken refuge in America.
Most, if not all, of today’s political reformists were diehard revolutionaries who adopted more moderate politics in the second decade of the revolution. They include Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a prime minister during Khomeini’s leadership who ran as a reformist candidate in the 2009 presidential elections and subsequently became a leader of the Green Movement. He has been living under house arrest for the past six years.
Meanwhile, Islamic regime loyalists from traditional, religious, and conservative backgrounds—who had not been so visible under the shah—went through a sea change. Expanded access to education (Khomeini encouraged girls’ education) meant that Iranians of every background attended school and universities.
The end of the 1980–88 Iran-Iraq War, and the death of Khomeini in 1989, brought about an abrupt social and cultural transformation among the devout and devoted revolutionaries. The late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president the same year Khomeini died, and his move toward a market economy and privatization, along with his appointment of technocrats, lifted the country from its revolutionary phase, leading a large number of people to substitute revolutionary ideology with pursuit of material gain.
“People were tired of being revolutionary, tired of despotism,” says women’s-rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh. “People like myself, who came from religious and traditional backgrounds and were very loyal to the revolution and the regime, suddenly found ourselves face to face with the social realities of the time. We had become visible. Many became doctors and engineers, or went into business or the media.” (Abbasgholizadeh left Iran during the 2009 crackdown after spending some time in jail and now lives in the United States.)
A large number of these former revolutionary religious and conservative Iranians and their offspring have gradually become secular and even Westernized. After Khatami’s election in 1997, the women started shedding their veil when they traveled abroad. They became the body and soul of the 2009 Green Movement and consequently became dissidents in a country and system that they or their parents had helped build after the revolution.
Dividing lines between these former revolutionaries and the pre-revolution secularists and their offspring have blurred. The majority of the former group, whose roots are found in the traditional religious classes, are now highly educated. Many are in exile in Europe or the United States—including some after stints in jail—and have become staunch critics of hard-liners back home. They lead secular Western lifestyles, breaking most of the taboos that their upbringing had taught them were sinful, immoral, and corrupt (not praying or fasting, drinking alcohol, partying and mixing with the opposite sex).
Although the political reform movement has for the past 20 years united a large number of Iranians under one umbrella, the gulf between them is still wide. Farzan, a 39-year-old painter, and his wife, Niloufar, 34, a Pilates instructor—both children of pre-revolution secularists—feel they are a minority among the former traditionalists who have turned secular. “People appear to share similar views about daily and marginal issues, but when it comes to more important matters—such as social or political thinking or cultural discussions—it’s hard to find someone to talk to,” says Niloufar. “I can easily find people at work to talk about shopping, clothes, makeup, and so on, but not about more crucial issues…. Our society is made up of small and scattered groups with little interaction among people. It’s a lonely place, especially for us. We just coexist with each other.”
Sahar, the Green Movement activist who is from a very religious and traditional background, agrees. Referring to people like Niloufar, she says, “We confuse them with those who were against the revolution—like Iranians who live in Los Angeles—or we confuse them with leftists. That’s how we classify them.” Besides, she adds, “Compared to the rest of us—full of zeal and passion—they are silent and very small in number. If they were visible they would automatically be labeled as monarchist or leftist.”
Many traditional secularists voted for presidential candidate Mousavi in 2009, and many sympathized with the Green Movement that arose in the ensuing protests. But some of them, especially those from the older generation, were miffed when the protesters answered Mousavi’s call to shout “God is great!” from rooftops every night to voice discontent over alleged vote-rigging, which was reminiscent of the revolution 30 years earlier. They complained that this proved the protesters were still religious and traditional at heart and perhaps not willing to change and modernize. “These slogans showed that we still have a long way to go,” says Farzan, who took part in the protests and was beaten by anti-riot police.
Sahar defends the action. “We thought of using their own tools against them. In prison, I learned that this works with them. The interrogator told me, ‘You are worse than a Monafeq [a derogatory term referring to the People’s Mojahedin Organization, or MEK, which for years advocated violent overthrow of the Islamic Republic]. He stands next to his yellow flag and says I am Mojahedin. You, on the other hand, are one of us, you’re the child of a military officer…and your family file is clean. We don’t know what to call you, a monarchist, a taghooti? So we will hurt you more because you are one of us and are fighting us. This is more unforgivable than what the Monafeq is doing.’”
The interrogators’ perception of this new generation of reformist dissidents is revealing. While the latter may believe their political legitimacy derives from the Islamic Republic because of their or their parents’ revolutionary credentials in overthrowing the shah, that has not protected them from accusations that they are an American fifth column.
On the political level, it is too simplistic to explain Iran’s complicated system through the binary lens of hard-liners pitted against moderates. There are various layers or shades in each faction, and their relationships depend on a given issue or time.
Traditional conservatives at the center of power and associated with Khamenei are in the principlist camp and accept only a limited form of people’s sovereignty, and only through the guidance of the clergy. But according to Ahmad Bakhshayesh, a hard-liner and a former member of Parliament’s national-security and foreign-policy commission, the principlist faction is not clear-cut anymore. “Everything got muddled up during Ahmadinejad’s two terms. The relationship between the factions became meaningless. Ahmadinejad tried to present himself as an independent. Not all principlists agreed with him,” Bakhshayesh, an Ahmadinejad supporter, said in an interview.
After the Guardian Council, a body that vets candidates in elections, disqualified him from running in this month’s election, Ahmadinejad said he would not back any candidate. His supporters “have gone into their shells, and it’s not clear how they will vote,” said Bakhshayesh. If they remain angry, he said, they may vote for Rouhani to spite hard-liners.
Ahmadinejad remains a popular figure among poorer sections of society because his government provided monthly cash handouts after cutting food and energy subsidies. Zahra, a 27-year-old employee in Tehran, is dismayed that he was barred because Ahmadinejad provided her family with financial help, in the form of rice and bank loans. “Now it doesn’t matter who wins,” she says. “I’ll see what my family says about whom to vote for.”
The reformist camp is also layered, with two different schools of thought: hard-line and moderate. According to women’s-rights activist Abbasgholizadeh, one school follows hermeneutic jurisprudence. People’s political participation is central to this philosophy, which holds that wearing the veil is a personal choice and should not be compulsory. Dynamic, or pooya, jurisprudence, on the other hand, holds religion closer to heart and is completely obedient to the principle of velayat-e faqih—governance of the Islamic jurist, or supreme leader. However, it allows for new fatwas, or edicts, to make Islam more compatible with modern times. For instance, while followers of dynamic jurisprudence believe women must wear the veil, they say it is permissible not to adhere to strict religious clothing when traveling abroad. President Rouhani belongs to this faction.
Adherents of pooya jurisprudence, however, should not be confused with followers of traditional jurisprudence (the traditional hard-line faction that the principlists follow), who strictly observe the Prophet’s words. Within this reformist-moderate spectrum, there are those who lead very orthodox religious lives, says Abbasgholizadeh, but do not interfere in other people’s personal lives.
While both the hermeneutic and the dynamic schools of jurisprudence agree with velayat-e faqih, they believe, unlike the principlists, that it should not interfere in governance and should act within the law. The hermeneutic faction prefers a council of clergymen—not a single supreme leader—with only an advisory role.
Since the suppression of the Green Movement, this wide reformist spectrum has increasingly moved toward the center—as have the voters, especially the young. When Khatami was elected in 1997, Pirouz was 18, an idealist like most of his friends and other Iranians his age. He attended reformist rallies along with others from a broad range of social, economic, and cultural backgrounds. Khatami’s failure to provide the promised reforms was a heavy blow.
Pirouz is now a pragmatist. “I will happily sacrifice my personal freedom for economic prosperity so that future generations will have stability to pursue personal freedoms,” says the 38-year-old architect, who, in Iranian sociological parlance, would be described as coming from a very secular, upper-middle-class background. He voted for the moderates in last year’s parliamentary elections. “Today, I vote for an idea, not a label…something that is doable and practical. I want Iran—given its power and weight—to respect international relations; to stop being a paper tiger pretending to be a superpower. I don’t want it to be an underling to any power either.” He says he supports any form of government “no matter what it is, even if I don’t like the looks of it”—as long as it works.
Twenty years ago, said journalist and satirist Ebrahim Nabavi, prominent reformist Saeid Hajarian predicted that it would take his movement three decades to achieve real power. “We laughed at him at the time,” Nabavi, also a former reformist prisoner who now lives in exile in the United States, said in an interview. “In retrospect, I see that we have 10 more years left. I am not saying that everything will be decorated like a Persian miniature. But the conditions that have presented themselves until now show that reformists have brought about many changes in many areas, especially in public opinion. Even principlists are verging toward reform.”
How will this happen, though? According to Nabavi, change is already on the way. And part of it is in the form of cash and hard-liner fatigue. “If Rouhani is re-elected, the reformist camp will consolidate a big chunk of its power,” he says. “What we need most is political stability to continue the work. Gradually, the cash flow to these principlists—who try to monopolize power—will dry up.… When they lose their funding, they will step aside. We cannot wage war on them—that’s exactly what they want.”