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Iranians Say, ‘We Have Been Going Backward’

Central Tehran is ablaze this week with posters and billboards of the six candidates in Friday’s presidential election, and the streets are jammed with buses taking supporters to campaign rallies, yet it is hard to find enthusiasm even for voting, much less for any individual candidate.

Iranians will head to the polls in a special election to choose the successor to former President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May.

The election comes at a critical moment for Iran’s leadership. The economy has been weakened by years of sanctions, and under Mr. Raisi’s ultra-conservative leadership, personal freedoms and expressions of dissent have been increasingly quashed. Yet the government is keen to persuade more Iranians to show up at the polls in large numbers because voter turnout is seen as a measure of its support and legitimacy.

It may be a challenge, after years of voter boycotts and apathy, and judging from a small sample of interviews in recent days. Conversations with more than a dozen government workers, students, businesspeople and other ordinary men and women revealed a degree of weariness, even skepticism, despite the risks of speaking freely in Iran.

Even those who say they will vote — although they rarely want to say for whom — say they have little faith that their lives will change in ways that matter to them.

“We have been going backward and we are crying inside; I cannot afford to buy the machines I need for my work,” said Ibrahim, 53, an industrial engineer who owns a cement business in the northern city of Tabriz and who, like most Iranians interviewed in the days just before the election, was reluctant to give his full name for fear of retribution from the authorities.

The Iranian economy has struggled in recent years, partly a result of the sanctions the United States imposed after the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal, but also because of economic mismanagement by the country’s clerical and military rulers. Iranians have also chafed under restrictions on their personal lives, particularly the requirement that women wear the hijab, which led to mass protests in 2022.

They have heard presidential candidates’ promises of change from time to time, and they are hearing them again in full throat in this election. But in the past they have, at best, gained some relaxations of laws on personal freedoms under moderate presidents like Hassan Rouhani, or the reformist Mohammad Khatami, only to face a crackdown under their conservative successors, like Mr. Raisi.

And they know the final say in all matters in Iran lies with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and that they have no sway whatsoever over his decisions.

Since uprisings in both 2009 and 2010 over what was widely thought to be a rigged election, and in those that were violently suppressed with executions and imprisonment in 2022 over the hijab, protests have taken different forms. One of those is to boycott the polls altogether to show that the people reject any candidate who is allowed to run by the government, which vets all hopefuls.

That disaffection with Iran’s current leaders comes through in many conversations with ordinary Iranians, though older ones like Ibrahim draw some satisfaction from their experiences in the early years after Iran’s 1979 revolution.

Ibrahim had stopped with his family to visit the shrine built south of Tehran to honor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the ideological architect of the revolution, the overriding event of the last 50 years here and one that still shapes Iran’s domestic and foreign affairs.

The enormous golden mausoleum, with its mosaic-covered domes and soaring golden minarets visible from miles away, is a striking contrast to the diminished circumstances that so many Iranians say they feel today, and although I visited on a religious holiday, the vast complex and its many parking lots were almost empty.

“I’ve seen two generations — I was 7 years old when the revolution came — the generation of the revolution and the next generation,” he said.

“After the revolution we saw more sacrifice, and everybody thought that they were brothers and sisters, and there was this philosophy of martyrdom, of everybody being ready to give his life for the country,” he said, referring to the Iran-Iraq conflict that ended in 1988 at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iranian lives, though the true number is unknown.

But now, if there is another war, “I don’t think that they will go and fight for the country.”

His children, he said, wanted to leave Iran for their studies. His daughter, Faezeh, 21, who speaks English, was unequivocal: She wants to study artificial intelligence and engineering, and she said she could not get the education she needs nor secure a well-paying job after graduation if she stayed in Iran.

“I don’t think I have a good future here,” she said, adding that she wants to attend the University of Texas in either Austin or Dallas. “We have lots of resources and lots of wealth in this country, oil and gas, but it does not touch our lives.”

“We need more individual freedoms,” she added. Under Mr. Raisi, Iran intensified censorship and impeded the encryption on messaging apps. Many websites are now blocked in Iran, and can be reached only by using a virtual private network, or V.P.N.

“I am taking a course on artificial intelligence on Coursera, and for that I need a VPN,” she said. “It is not at all related to politics. Why does the government care?”

But will she vote in the elections? She shrugged and shook her head.

Many young people expressed similar sentiments. In northern Tehran’s Tajrish Bazaar, where many women leave their scarves draped around their shoulders, only occasionally covering their heads, a brother and sister — he recently earned a pharmacy degree and she is planning to pursue one herself — were window-shopping together. They were reluctant to discuss the election.

“You know, we don’t even want to talk about politics,” said Pedran, 25, the pharmacist, who said he was not going to vote “because we know we’ll be disappointed by all of the political people.”

Would he leave Iran? “Maybe yes, but honestly it’s difficult and our family is here.”

Those who feel most committed to voting are those who took part in the 1979 revolution, or at least have a memory of it from childhood, and often worked for a long time in the government. Often, they also fought in the Iran-Iraq war, and feel deeply connected to the country’s revolutionary identity.

Hossein Nasim, 56, who runs a small carpet shop in the Tajrish Bazaar, says he is enthusiastic about voting on Friday. He spent seven years as a prisoner in Iraq during the war — he became a soldier at 17 — and has one demand of the next president: Keep Iran away from war.

“Keep us away from any type of invasion,” he said, adding that the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are “peace-loving people” who are trying to avert conflict. He said Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led Iran’s powerful Quds Force, which is responsible for Iran’s external defense, and whom the United States killed in a drone strike in Iraq in 2020, was the kind of leader “who could organize people very well.”

General Suleimani, whom the United States described as a terrorist, was responsible for setting up the Iran-backed armed groups across the Middle East that have helped to achieve Mr. Nasim’s goal of keeping war away from Iran. These groups — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza and various militias in Syria and Iraq — give Iran plausible deniability while carrying out attacks on Iran’s enemies, including Israel and the United States.

Masumeh, 27, a conservatively dressed accountant in a black chador who had come with her 6-year-old son to pray at the shrine, appeared to be searching for that same sense of mission that both Mr. Nasim and Ibrahim, the industrial engineer from Tabriz, drew from the early days of the revolution.

Speaking of Ayatollah Khomeini, she said, “I am too young to remember the revolution, but I know that many young people followed him and he strengthened Islam in Iran.”

“This revolution was like a miracle for Iran. It made Iran exceptional, and we should continue in his path,” she said.

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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