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How Iran’s presidential election could bring more change

May 19, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Iranians went to the polls by the tens of millions Friday to cast their votes in a hotly contested presidential election. Steve Inskeep of NPR, reporting all week from Iran, talks to Judy Woodruff about what this election means for Iran’s path ahead and how freedoms have slightly loosened under incumbent President Hassan Rouhani.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Voters in Iran went to the polls today in a tightly controlled, but still hotly contested presidential election. Poll closing times were extended by several hours, as tens of millions headed to the 63,000 polling places throughout the country. Officials reported turnout of around 70 percent, and vote-counting has now begun early Saturday morning there.

NPR’s Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting all week from Iran, and I spoke with him earlier today.

I began by asking him where he was at that moment and to remind us who the main contenders are.

STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: I am in Hosseinieh Ershad, which is a very famous mosque here in Tehran.

It’s got special significant in this city. And it’s also tonight a polling place. The people are behind me are in line waiting to vote. And if you were to follow this line, it would go out the door, down the steps, around the corner, all the way down to block and off into the darkness.

And as I have been driving around the city tonight, Judy, I have seen lines like this all over the city. Mosques are polling places. Buses are polling places. There’s a lot of enthusiasm at this moment for one or both of the two main candidates for president, Hassan Rouhani, the incumbent, and Ebrahim Raisi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you wrote today, Steve, for NPR that this election has in a way come down to a referendum on the incumbent, Mr. Rouhani.

What did you mean by that?

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, it’s true in America too, isn’t it? When a president runs for reelection, it’s really about the president and whether people are satisfied with the job that he’s done.

And that’s especially true in this case because Hassan Rouhani has been such a different figure. He’s not a radical. He’s not an outsider. He’s been a member of Iran’s clerical establishment for decades.

But he ran in 2013 on a promise to begin to open Iran up to the world, to improve relations with other countries, and also to bring freedom at home. He’s been through four dramatic years in which he made a nuclear deal that included the United States, along with other world powers, a profound change in relations, at least on that one issue, with the United States.

And there’s been some small signs of opening here in Iran as well, although there are other people who are frustrated that more has not happened, as well as people frustrated about the state of the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he has also faced what I’m reading is a pretty stiff challenge from the conservative cleric who’s running against him.

STEVE INSKEEP: They’re both clerics. They’re both from the same world. They both at different times have been close to the guy who holds the most power in Iran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is not up for reelection, by the way. He’s not elected by the people.

But the president is. Rouhani was someone who was close to the supreme leader and then positioned himself as a more moderate figure who could try to change the rut that Iran had gotten itself in, the isolation that Iran had gotten itself in. And that’s how he won election.

And now Ebrahim Raisi is a figure who has positioned himself as very close to the supreme leader and he’s seen as far more conservative, although I should add he has been also very populist in the way that he’s campaigned, hammering President Rouhani for the state of the economy, making promises to improve things for people here by taking steps such as increasing the cash payments, the small cash payments that are given to each Iranian.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much are attitudes towards the United States, the U.S., and the nuclear deal part of this election?

STEVE INSKEEP: It is a part of the election, but only a part.

Voters who support Rouhani, when I have interviewed them over the last several days in different cities here in Iran, one of the things they say again and again that they want is better relations with the world, and the nuclear deal is part of that.

The nuclear deal is also part of this campaign in a negative way for President Rouhani, because he made what were seen as extravagant promises, that if Iran would only make the nuclear deal happen, economic sanctions would be lifted and Iran’s economy, which has been struggling, would improve.

Economists are impressed with a lot of the things that he’s done, but the unemployment rate remains very, very high. The economy has not created jobs rapidly enough for a very large, very young, very rapidly growing and pretty well-educated population.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Steve you mentioned the supreme leader a moment ago. How much does this election really matter in the theocracy that Iran is?

STEVE INSKEEP: You know, it matters. It doesn’t matter totally.

Rouhani’s election in 2013 brought some change, brought a nuclear deal, brought more openness. And I have felt it in multiple visits to Iran over the last four years. It’s a little more open each time. People are a little more fearless each time, even though it’s also true that many people have to be extremely careful about what they say or what they write.

There is more openness. There is a tiny bit more freedom than there used to be. And Rouhani’s election in 2013 can be seen as the reason for that. So, you could argue that this election too might bring change to this country which has been a pretty big dramatic story over the last several decades.

JUDY WOODRUFF: NPR’s Steve Inskeep at a busy polling place in Tehran, thank you.