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On Election Day, Taking Stock Of Free Expression In Iran


Iranians are voting on the future of their country today. The Iranian people are not permitted to choose the ayatollah, who's their supreme leader, but they can choose a president. And the president who made a historic nuclear deal with the West is now seeking re-election. Our co-host Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Iran all this week. He joins us now on the line.

Hey, Steve.


Hey there, Rachel.

MARTIN: What have you learned this week?

INSKEEP: Well, I've - we've gotten a few clues and a few data points about where this election is heading. President Hasan Rouhani faces a more conservative challenger. So on this election day, which is a holiday here in Iran, I went to a conservative part of the capital city, Tehran, a very old part of this mostly new city of many, many millions of people - it goes up and down the side of a mountain range. In this old section, there are long, narrow streets barely wide enough for a car. And people were lined up at bakeries for fresh bread this morning and also lined up at a polling place.

So the polling place is here in a mosque. Got to take off our shoes. Nice little lockers. Step inside.

People fill out paper ballots and drop them in a plastic box. And some of those ballots were for President Rouhani's challenger Ebrahim Raisi. Now for Americans, this election is mainly about the nuclear deal. But for many Iranians, the election, like U.S. elections, is really about the economy. I met a man named Gholamhosein Keshavarzi who said all he wants is a raise in his job in the ministry of education.

Which presidential candidate do you think will do that?


INSKEEP: You're for Raisi.

KESHAVARZI: Raisi (laughter) OK.

INSKEEP: Both of you, Raisi?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

INSKEEP: You hear a second man chiming in there. And he said Raisi can save the country - save it, he says, from a lousy economy and poverty. There's a lot of economic discontent here, although there is also a lot of support for President Rouhani, as we saw moving around Tehran. There's nothing scientific about this, but we were at the polling place in an area that's presumed to be for Raisi, the challenger. And turnout was pretty light. Here in a big pro Rouhani area, there's a very long line to get into the mosque.

You know, this was in the midmorning Tehran time, Rachel.


INSKEEP: Hundreds of people were in line. It's Iran, so there was one line for men and one line for women. And people in both lines spoke to me of the president as a man who could improve the economy and also bring greater social freedom, which they really want.

MARTIN: OK. So here's my question - Rouhani has already been president for four years. He did the nuclear deal. But it's widely understood he hasn't been able to make a whole lot of social changes. So what would it mean - how significant would it be if he loses?

INSKEEP: Well, a lot of his supporters would take that very hard because they say he has allowed a little more space for free expression and the press in this country. I spoke this week with Maryam Abdi who says she favors more rights for women. President Rouhani hasn't delivered that yet, but she sees him as the only hope. And she's been volunteering this year to work for a political party that supports him. Let's listen.

What if Rouhani loses?

MARYAM ABDI: (Through interpreter) There is no plan B. A politician here would say maybe, it's no problem. We can just find a way to go out. With 38 years of age, I do not really have any plan. I do not know what to do.

INSKEEP: She was saying this in a political campaign office where we were surrounded by dozens of posters showing the face of the man that she's desperate, really, to keep in office.

MARTIN: So you have been to Iran, Steve, multiple times. I'm just wondering how this trip feels to you. Does it feel more open? Does it feel different?

INSKEEP: It feels more open. It does feel different over time. But when you talk with people privately, you still hear how jittery they are and how complex it is to live in a society that has features of a democracy but is also authoritarian. It's a strange, strange world.

MARTIN: NPR's Steve Inskeep in Tehran - thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: Glad to do it, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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