by Sussan Tahmasebi
According to the polls, incumbent Hassan Rouhani is the frontrunner in Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, which will be held on May 19. However observers acknowledge that the win is still not guaranteed and that Rouhani faces a tough re-election. According to Rouhani supporters, the greatest threat facing Rouhani is not posed by election rivals but by an apathetic public who may choose not to participate in elections or, even worse, boycott Friday’s vote. In fact several political opposition groups based outside have publicly called for a boycott of elections, claiming that none of the candidates promises hope for any real change. Boycotters believe that the state and the ruling elite promote a high turnout as a sign of their legitimacy. They hope a boycott, on the contrary, will have the opposite effect and eventually lead to the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.
In turn, political activists who support Rouhani and especially reformists are encouraging the public to determine their own future by casting their votes for Rouhani who they claim promises the greatest hope for reform. Former President Khatami issued a video statement on Sunday encouraging Iranians to vote for Rouhani. The video, published on Rouhani’s Telegram account, was removed following a judicial order.
Celebrities such as actress Baran Kossari gave an impassioned speech at a campaign rally encouraging voters to go to the polls and support Rouhani. In fact, several well known artists have also endorsed Rouhani, including actress Fatemeh Motamed Arya and award-winning director Asghar Farhadi. Speaking on a panel on Culture with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other government officials, Motamed Arya endorsed Rouhani, saying, “I am happy that today after having been accused of acting against national security, I am sitting here with government officials and those who had accused me are no longer around.” Azmoun Sardar, a popular soccer player who happens to be Sunni, also released a video declaring his support for Rouhani and stressing the importance of Rouhani’s policies in support of Iran’s ethnic minorities.
Human Rights Activists Support Rouhani
Those who advocate a boycott often point to Iran’s human rights record to justify their stance. But the take by many leading human rights figures inside the country is more nuanced. They have joined ranks with politicians and celebrities in endorsing Rouhani and calling for Iranians to step up and vote on Friday. Despite shortcomings on human rights in Iran, these activists do see differences between the candidates. Those who have been traditionally marginalized and persecuted feel they have much to lose if hardline candidate Raisi is elected as a result of low turnout and election boycotts.
Bahareh Hedayat, a student and women’s rights activist for example was arrested in the aftermath of the contested 2009 elections. She was released in September 2016 after serving nearly seven years in prison. Even from behind bars, Hedayat wrote an open letter to encourage Iranians to go to the polls and vote for Rouhani during the June 2013 elections. Since then, Rouhani has delivered on some of his major campaign promises such as ending Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. But he has not had as much success on some of his other promises, including a promise to free political prisoners, to end the house arrest of Iran’s Green Movement leaders (Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karoubi, and Zahra Rahnavard), and to end the security orientation of the state toward citizens. True, the areas under the direct control of Rouhani have seen human rights improvement, even if minor. In areas under the control of the hardline judiciary and Revolutionary Guards, human rights violations have escalated, including arrests of political dissidents, dual nationals, journalists, and human rights activists.
Despite the slow pace of human rights improvements, Bahareh Hedayat believes that Rouhani still offers the best possibility for a more democratic future:
I will vote for Rouhani, because I believe there are no shortcuts. I don’t believe there is a magical route to achieving our ideal society. We are in this situation now, because 40 years ago our parents believed that there was a short cut, through which we could realize our ideal society overnight. As such, I think that Rouhani is a good choice. Also by voting for him, I will be rejecting hardline options who oppose him.
Zia Nabavi, another student activist arrested only three days after the 2009 elections and serving a 10-year prison sentence, has written several letters encouraging Iranians to participate in the elections and vote for Rouhani. In 2005, along with others in Iran’s national student union, Nabavi supported an election boycott. In his recent letter, however, Navabi blames the resulting low turnout in the 2005 elections for bringing the populist Ahmadinejad to power. Recalling the ensuing crackdowns targeting the student movement and the destruction that Ahmadinejad brought to Iran over the course of eight years, Navabi confesses:
I cannot deny the shame I feel for contributing to those developments [in 2005]… I believe that [student activists] are also to blame for the 8 years of populist destruction and public deception [that ensued], just as I believe today when faced with the possibility of a ballot victory by the same populist hardliners, we all bear responsibility [to prevent it].
Another unlikely but vocal supporter of Rouhani is Parvin Fahimi, whose son, Sohrab Arabi, was shot dead during the unrest following the 2009 elections. In a video message published on Instagram she said: “I will vote for Mr. Rouhani, because I want the path toward reform and moderation to continue, and while I believe that this is a difficult and lengthy path it is the only one leading to freedom.” She reiterated her demand that Rouhani end the house arrest of Green Movement Leaders and free political prisoners. “I am sure that if my son Sohrab were alive today,” she concluded, “he would choose the same path.”
Sunnis for Rouhani
While acknowledging the shortcomings of the Rouhani government, many endorsers like Fahimi have made their own demands of Rouhani for the next four years. One example is Molavi Abdul Hamid, a Sunni theologian and the spiritual leader of Sunni Muslims in Iran. According to Sunni Online, in a meeting with Tehran MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, Abdul Hamid claimed that most of Iran’s Sunni population, despite some complaints, support Rouhani since his government has offered a more open political environment than what Ahmadinejad provided. The Strategy Council of Sunnis in Iran offered a similar endorsement.
Abdul Hamid, also stressed that over the next four years, Sunnis expect increased representation in high-level government posts and guarantees for greater religious freedoms. During the 2013 elections, the Sunni areas of Iran cast the highest votes for Rouhani, who has since appointed an advisor on minority affairs and allowed for the teaching of mother tongues of minority populations in universities and some schools—a right guaranteed by the Iranian constitution but never implemented. Rouhani has also appointed minority Sunni governors at the local level, including several women, and appointed Saleh Adibi as ambassador to Vietnam, the first Sunni ambassador in the history of the Islamic Republic. Still Sunnis who suffer great discrimination in Iran feel that more is necessary.
Rouhani’s political supporters and many reformists have vowed that should Rouhani garner a high percentage of the vote, he will be able to appoint a better cabinet and push for some of these social and political demands. Human rights activists and minority groups supporting Rouhani too expect to remain active over the next four years to press for the realization of their demands and to hold government accountable.
Photo: Baran Kossari
Sussan Tahmasebi is an Iranian civil society and women’s human rights defender. Currently she is the director of the MENA/Asia Program at the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), which she co-founded in 2006. ICAN works to support women’s civil society organizations in the Middle East and North Africa and in Asia, to advocate for rights, peace, and security with a focus on countries impacted by conflict, extremism, and shrinking civil society space. Follow her on twitter @sussantweets