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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Iranians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new president. Clerics, who hold supreme power in the Islamic republic, have allowed elections for decades.

WERTHEIMER: So the people have the vote, but clerics and their allies make the rules. Those already in power choose who can run for office and limit what they do if elected. Restrictions are tighter than ever after massive protests followed a disputed election in 2009.

MONTAGNE: In fact, the country has come to see the vote, less about electing a president, and more about making a point. Our own Steve Inskeep is reporting from Iran this week.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Campaign workers were still testing the microphone for a presidential campaign event when we started talking with people in the slowly gathering crowd. The event was for Saeed Jalili. He's Iran's nuclear negotiator, and one of the candidates in Friday's voting. This was a low-key event with campaign advisors discussing issues, and the candidate himself never appearing except as a giant photo on the wall.

Jalili supporters include Seyid Amir, who was sitting on a carpet against the wall.

SEYID AMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He's a college student at Tehran University and spoke through an interpreter.

AMIR: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Seyid said the most important thing to me, is working for Mr. Jalili. And working for Mr. Jalili looks like working for God.

INSKEEP: Jalili speaks of traditional roles for women and firm resistance to the United States. Jalili also promises complete loyalty to the ayatollah who is Iran's Supreme Leader. He's a hardliner - or a principlist, as conservatives are called here - committed to their version of the principles of Iran's revolution.

Across the room, we struck up a conversation with another voter, Hassan Salmani. We assumed he, too, would be a Jalili supporter, but he called Jalili dangerous.

HASSAN SALMANI: Yes, he is dangerous. I believe that.

INSKEEP: He's not realistic, Salmani explained, about finding a way out of U.S. economic sanctions imposed because of Iran's nuclear program. This voter is conservative, in fact, he's a cleric himself. But he'd hoped for a different candidate whom Iran's government did not allow to run.

In Iran, voters and candidates alike are often reminded of the limits of their political power. Those who complain about it though, are careful not to complain too much. Consider Mohammad Gharazi, a presidential candidate who arrived at a press conference this week.

MOHAMMAD GHARAZI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: I'll speak as soon as I have a cup of tea, the candidate said, and soon launched into a complaint.

GHARAZI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: He's not one of the favored candidates. And he said Iran's state-run television network has not been reporting his words accurately. So I followed up with a question: does he think the election is free and fair? His answer was revealing.

GHARAZI: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Gharazi said: I don't look at the election as an instrument of power. I look at it as a social instrument. He went on to say that the election wasn't really to decide policy. It was simply for Iranians to show up by the millions, and show support for their government against outsiders.

To American ears this may seem unusual, but Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has said roughly the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

INSKEEP: To be sure, this election is still an election, and certainly felt like on Monday night, thousands of people jammed a public hall to hear Mohammed Reza Aref speak. He was a more liberal candidate, a reformer in Iran's parlance. This was Aref's final rally before he made a dramatic sacrifice.

Everybody in the room knew he was about to withdraw in favor of another candidate so reformers would not split their votes. Yet even at this emotional event, one of the speakers, Fatima Rake, made a surprising statement.

FATIMA RAKE: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: The result of the election is not important, she declared. Your participation is important.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

INSKEEP: Reformers are trying to convince their supporters to vote despite a widespread belief the game is rigged, from the selection of candidates to the counting of votes.

RAKE: (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: After the rally, we spoke with two voters on their way out. They were younger men directly affected by Iran's troubles. Analysts say U.S.-led sanctions and government mismanagement are wrecking the economy. Both men are in their 20's, both are doctors. And yet despite their qualifications, neither has a full-time job.

Americans might be surprised to find that you're struggling for work. What's different here?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I have a question: What's similar?

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have made a revolution about 35 years ago. We are not stabilized yet. And many rules are not as we want.

INSKEEP: It was their desire to change the rules, improving the economy or loosening restrictions on women, that drew the young men to the reformers' campaign rally. But as we stood outside in the darkness, it became uncomfortable to talk. Hundreds of government security personnel were monitoring the street, lined up against an iron fence. Watching - us. We decided to move on.

Gentlemen, thank you very much. One of the young men walked alongside me a little farther. He tried to smile, and to explain something. There is no hope of change, he said. We are doing this for the memory of better times. To understand what's happening here, you have to go against the current. Tehran, the capital, is built on a mountainside.

Mountain streams flow downhill in stone channels cut into the streets. We went uphill where the streams branch out becoming smaller. High on the mountain, on a street too narrow to drive a car, a tiny stream flows down the middle of the lane, past the modest home of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. He used to speak in this hosseiniya, or Shia Muslim place of worship where tourists and pilgrims still come to pray.

Khomeini was Iran's first supreme leader, the revolutionary founder of Iran's system called velayat e-faqih, or governance of the Islamic jurists. He created a tangled system of checks and balances where all lines of power ultimately flow back to the clergy. It's extraordinarily hard to change the system. That's absolutely fine for many Iranians, like a saffron dealer who brought his family hundreds of miles to visit the late ayatollah's home.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: We are followers of the supreme leader, said the saffron dealer - meaning Khomeini's successor. Whatever he says, we follow.

The dealer said the country is in good shape, and like his wife, he's deciding among the more conservative presidential candidates. Then again, on this narrow street we also encountered Mohammad Solari, a retired oil executive with a different view. What's the most important thing for the next president of Iran to do?

MOHAMMAD SOLARI: The economy's the most important things. The economy and relations with the other countries. That must be improved. And inflation is so high, and it's hurting the people.

INSKEEP: Yet Solari is having trouble deciding how to vote.

SOLARI: I haven't made my mind. I haven't made my mind. The one I was going to vote for is out of it.

INSKEEP: Solari said he's a relative of Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic former president who was disqualified from running.

SOLARI: Well, I really don't know on what base they did that decision, I'm sure that decision could be right.

INSKEEP: It could be right.

SOLARI: It could be right.

INSKEEP: He's been forced to accept the decision without protest, as in fact, his relative Rafsanjani did. Tomorrow, millions of Iranians finally vote. But even as they prepared to do so this week, Iranian media shook the ground with some news. They reported a small group called the Guardian Council might soon meet. The Council has the power to disqualify presidential candidates, and was reportedly considering whether to reject one more of them.

A Council spokesman denied it had any plans, but added the Council has the power to reject candidates if it wants. Half the Council members were appointed by the supreme leader, and the report served as a reminder of who still makes the rules in Iran.

MONTAGNE: Steve Inskeep is reporting from Iran this week. He'll update us tomorrow as Iranians cast their ballots for president. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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