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Disqualified Candidate Sits On Sidelines Of Iran's Parliamentary Election

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Disqualified Candidate Sits On Sidelines Of Iran's Parliamentary Election

Middle East

Disqualified Candidate Sits On Sidelines Of Iran's Parliamentary Election

Disqualified Candidate Sits On Sidelines Of Iran's Parliamentary Election

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Iranians are voting Friday in a parliamentary election but not everyone who wants to be a candidate is permitted to run. A group must affirm candidates are properly educated, religious and loyal.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States is not the only country holding an election. Iran is choosing a Parliament today, which is big deal because Iran is deciding after a nuclear agreement how much, if at all, the country will change. Just how Iran runs an election says a lot about its version of democracy. Not everybody is allowed to run, and we have the story of a candidate who was refused. In Iran recently, we visited the building where the candidate would have liked to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: We're listening to the legislators give speeches in this vast room with its peaked, white ceiling. Few of the several hundred desks are full. Some of the lawmakers are wandering the aisles, having conversation, touching each other on the shoulders, on the elbows - in the way that politicians anywhere in the world would. This Parliament, the modulus, does not have supreme power in Iran by any means, but the elections, coming in just a few weeks for the seats in this chamber, are being intensely followed by the public - and it is clear, intensely followed by the governing authorities.

Those authorities are the clerics who hold ultimate power in Iran. A group called the Guardian Council must affirm candidates are properly educated, religious and loyal. Iran's supreme leader has justified this ideological vetting. He compared it to the way Americans used to marginalize leftists during the Cold War. This year, several thousand Iranian candidates were refused, and that includes a man who agreed to meet us in his campaign office.

Hello.

HOSSEIN DEHBASHI: Hi.

INSKEEP: Hey.

DEHBASHI: How do you do?

INSKEEP: OK, I'm Steve.

His expressive eyebrows gave him a passing resemblance to the late actor John Candy. You're Mr. Dehbashi? I'm...

DEHBASHI: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...OK, great.

Hossein Dehbashi was running for office for the first time, though he's known in Iranian politics. He used to work for Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani. That's the man who just made a nuclear deal with world powers including the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "YES WE CAN")

INSKEEP: Dehbashi once made a famous video for President Rouhani, which he played for us. It showed a succession of faces.

DEHBASHI: The point of the video is diversity and diversity of clothes, diversity of hijab, diversity of languages.

INSKEEP: Also of ethnic groups and different branches of Islam. The video was called "Yes We Can." It even made news in the United States, where people recalled yes we can as an old slogan of President Obama. It turns out that the filmmaker, Dehbashi, was in the United States at the time of Obama's election.

DEHBASHI: It was a very big chance for me and - to see how American people fight during the election.

INSKEEP: It wasn't entirely by choice that he ever took what he learned back to Iran. In fact, he applied for permanent residency to the United States. In 2010, U.S. immigration authorities accused him of faking documents in his application, detained him and eventually sent him home. Forced to start over in Tehran, he got a job making political videos and his candidate, Hassan Rouhani, won a surprise victory in 2013. "Yes We Can" celebrated Rouhani's 100th day in office.

DEHBASHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "It was only after that," he says, "that things started going wrong." He says his video was criticized by Iranian conservatives. The president did not use any more of his work.

What does your story say about free expression in Iran?

DEHBASHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: Dehbashi discussed this through our interpreter.

DEHBASHI: (Through interpreter) Although we've got freedom of speech here in Iran, but the main problem is that after that, you know, when you say something you have to face the consequences about yourself - but everyone has got the freedom of speech to say whatever they want.

INSKEEP: The frustrated videographer says he began to lose faith in his president. Dehbashi decided he should run for office himself. He wrote on social media that he thinks nothing has really changed inside Iran.

Are you being critical of President Rouhani then by saying that?

DEHBASHI: Yes.

INSKEEP: The very man you made the video for, you don't think he's done enough?

DEHBASHI: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: "I still like President Rouhani," Dehbashi replied, "but he has wandered away from his promises." And that, he says, is why he wanted to be in Parliament.

You wanted to stand for the majlis?

DEHBASHI: The majlis from Tehran.

INSKEEP: What happened?

DEHBASHI: (Through interpreter) So far I've been disqualified.

INSKEEP: He says he received a letter from the Guardian Council. Remember the clerical authorities who decide if you're allowed to run for office in Iran? Their official letter said the candidate could not run because he had done something, not specified, that was contrary to Islam in the public interest. Unofficially, Dehbashi believed he was just considered too liberal. For a time after his disqualification, the candidate hoped the decision would be reversed.

What's written on the window over there?

DEHBASHI: (Through interpreter) So my plans are written there over there.

INSKEEP: Plans for a website and new campaign videos - this time promoting himself. Many Iranian candidates were restored to the ballot eventually, but Dehbashi was not. That's the normal way that Iran manages elections, though this year the practice prompted a subtle, but public disagreement between Iranian leaders. In recent weeks, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the cleric who is Iran's supreme leader, declared that everyone should vote even those who oppose Iran's governing system. At a news conference soon afterward, an unhappy President Rouhani replied that people would vote if Iran allowed more candidates to run a lively campaign. A few days after that, the supreme leader made a clarification. He said he just wants everyone to vote, not run for Parliament. And in All Things Considered today, Peter Kenyon reports on today's election from Iran. This is NPR News.

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