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How will Iran choose its next Supreme Leader?

February 19, 2016 at 7:14 PM EDT
Iranians will go to the polls next week to choose a new Parliament, as well as select the council that will in turn choose the country’s next Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Khamenei’s death. But how will the recent nuclear deal with the U.S. affect voting? William Brangham talks to NPR’s Steve Inskeep, who has just returned from a research trip in Iran, for more on the political scene there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Iranians will go to the polls next week to elect a new parliament and to choose the small group that will pick the next supreme leader.

One of our colleagues from NPR is just back from a reporting trip to Iran, and William Brangham has that conversation.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The signing of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran was supposed to begin a new era of relations between Iran and the West. The deal would free Iran from decades of crippling economic sanctions, while giving the West some confidence that Iran won’t be able to develop a nuclear weapon.

Many in the United States, however, remain wary of Iran’s intentions, including virtually all the Republican candidates running for president. They all vow to renegotiate the agreement.

But what is happening inside Iran?

National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep is just back from a reporting trip, and he joins me now.

Steve, welcome back. And welcome to the show.

STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: Thanks. Glad to be here.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The nuclear deal has been signed. Iran is freed somewhat from these sanctions.

What is it like there? Are things getting better for Iranians?

STEVE INSKEEP: No, not in day-to-day life, not yet.

In fact, in talking with people on the street, which I find to be one of the most productive things to do when traveling to Iran, I find a lot of pessimism. People have gone through years of economic suffering. Many people have disagreed with the political direction of their government.

And even though things are moving, in their point of view, in a more optimistic direction, it’s very slow. And of course it’s too early to see any concrete economic results from the end of sanctions that just happened a few weeks ago.

There was a time when people were saying just the anticipation of the end of sanctions was improving Iran’s economy, but that seems not to have trickled down to ordinary people.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But I don’t understand. Rouhani was elected in no small part to eliminate sanctions, to improve relations with the West, to try to make the economy better. Is this the sense that it’s not happening fast enough or not enough?

STEVE INSKEEP: That is exactly right.

There is this residue of support for Hassan Rouhani. I even found people in centers of support for the prior president, who was very different, who said, yes, I support Rouhani. I’m with Rouhani.

But I think more liberal people or Western-facing people who want much greater openness, who want much greater change have been disappointed not to see more.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And I know, in one of your reports this week, you reported on how there are certainly still some people in Iran who don’t want any of those changes to occur. What is it that they’re afraid of?

What is it that they’re worried — if business starts to flourish, if the economy gets better? Help me understand what the concern is.

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, on a basic level, they’re afraid of us. They’re afraid of the United States.

This was a government that was founded on a few basic principles, and one of them was opposition to the United States. And the United States was blamed for many of Iran’s previous problems before 1979. There’s been a longstanding rivalry. They’re aware of profound distrust in the United States of Iran.

And so you have two governments that are very much at odds on everything other than the nuclear deal. And so, on one level, it’s as simple as that. On another level, you have a government, a clerical-led government, that has elections, that has a semblance of democracy, but that knows it is not fundamentally supported by a lot of people.

Some people might say the majority of Iranians oppose the government. I can’t go that far. I don’t know what the numbers are. But it’s clear there is a lot of cynicism, a lot of disappointment with this government, and a lot of impatience with this government.

And if you’re in charge, you know that. And so you wonder what’s going to happen next. You don’t want things to go the wrong way and for your government to fall.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the things that, in the West, we like to tell ourselves is that it was the economic sanctions that crippled their economy and brought Iran to the negotiating table.

And one of your reports really detailed this — the cynicism almost that people think that some of the problems within Iran might have been because of corruption and mismanagement within their own government.

STEVE INSKEEP: Oh, yes. No, this was really interesting.

It was a talking point for Iranians during sanctions: Your sanctions aren’t really hurting us too much. It’s other things that are going on here.

But it’s also something that a lot of Iranians firmly, genuinely believe, that there were ways that they found to get around economic sanctions. And, by the way, during all my visits over the last several years, I have stories about people finding ways to sell carpets to Germany, people finding ways to sell petrochemicals to China, in spite of various sanctions.

So, certain things did happen.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Big ingenious population in Iran.

STEVE INSKEEP: Yes, exactly. And you can get around economic sanctions, to an extent, although they were more and more punishing over time.

But what has been harder to get around is that sense of mismanagement of the economy, hyperinflation in the economy, 36,000 Iranian rials for $1. And it was much, much less just a few years ago.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That’s incredible.

STEVE INSKEEP: And so you have serious problems in the economy, and you have a clear sense of corruption, that some of these government entities that are deeply involved in the economy also take a cut.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: We know there’s elections coming up at the end of next week. And in typical Iranian fashion, a whole slew of people who wanted to run were told, you can’t run, reasons unstated.

But what are you looking for in particular in that election next week?


When you say typical Iranian fashion, it’s the system. It’s officially the system.


STEVE INSKEEP: There’s a group called the Guardian Council that is there to disqualify candidates who are considered not Islamic enough or not enough with the Islamic Revolution and whatever else.

And you’re correct that they’re not very transparent about their reasons for people being disqualified. We don’t even know — or I don’t at this moment — maybe somebody does — exactly who is in or out.

We know that many people were disqualified. There are elections for the Assembly of Experts this time. The Assembly of Experts is charged with overseeing the supreme leader, to the extent that anybody does. That’s the body that elects the supreme leader. That’s the body that, at least in theory, could remove or impeach, as Americans would say, the supreme leader, if there was some incapacity or he couldn’t do his job.

So it’s considered vitally important who gets on that panel, who chooses the next supreme leader. Let’s remember that this is a system was designed, rather like the American system, with lots of checks and balances. Any new leader of that country would still inherit that system with all of its checks and balances.

It would be very hard to move Iran in any direction but the direction it’s in now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Steve Inskeep from National Public Radio, thank you for your reporting. Thanks being here.

STEVE INSKEEP: Glad to come.