Iran elections underscore split between leaders, middle class

February 25, 2012

More than two years after massive anti-government demonstrations over a disputed election exposed a rift between Iran’s leaders and its urban middle class, their diverging worlds are again set to collide in an upcoming vote for a new parliament.

This time, disgruntled opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are unlikely to hold protests, political analysts said, but they may not vote either, denying Iranian leaders the large turnout they seek to reaffirm the legitimacy of their 33-year-old rule.

Since crushing the 2009 demonstrations, which erupted when Ahmadinejad claimed a landslide reelection victory, the government has disregarded demands for greater freedom and portrayed the grass-roots opposition as a small band of misguided troublemakers.

As a result, the parliamentary elections scheduled for Friday highlight a disconnect between the nation’s leadership and the hard-working urbanites — who include bus drivers, business lawyers and university-educated nurses, and who make up the Islamic republic’s increasingly self-aware and modern middle class.

As the government sees it, robust participation in the elections would deliver a “punch in the mouth” to Iran’s foreign enemies, state media have reported.

But after years of frustration in their quest for more personal liberties, better relations with the West and adherence to the rule of law, many members of the ignored middle class are considered more likely to stay home.

For them, Facebook, satellite television and secret parties — all illegal in Iran — have combined with occasional overseas trips to create a separate reality in which state ideology is ignored as much as possible and elections make no difference.

“In my world, the currency has lost its value, our oil is under sanctions, we are weak, and I feel humiliated,” said Amir, 28, a watch seller who did not want to be further identified for fear of retribution. “But in their world, the country is strong, the economy is booming, and our future is glorious. We are on different planets.”

He added, “Voting will not change that, the past has proven.”

In the leadership’s parallel universe, six state television channels night after night repeat news of hope, achievements and future bliss. Viewers are told that Iran has the world’s fastest rate of scientific growth, thanks to the “Islamic Iranian model of development.” Documentaries showing U.S. leaders shaking hands with Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who was ousted by the 1979 revolution and died in exile in 1980, are aimed at educating the millions of young people born after his autocratic rule.

News programs interview ministers who reveal double-digit growth figures and report on infrastructural accomplishments. New bridges, dams, gas pipelines and electricity for remote villages contribute to growing “national self-confidence,” as state television calls it.

In speeches broadcast live, Iran’s top-most leaders herald international sanctions against their country as liberation from dependence on Western technology. The sanctions, imposed over Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program, are a divine blessing in disguise, they say, because they have generated a “can-do” spirit among Iran’s “legions” of talented youths. These young people, leaders say, have taken the places of some original supporters of the revolution who “fell by the wayside.”

“They closed the gates of science and technology to us,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently in denouncing Western sanctions. “They closed off the roads. They refused to sell us the products we needed. Yet we made progress. . . . These things happened while we were under sanctions. This is why hopes are growing.”

In a speech commemorating this month’s anniversary of the Islamic revolution, Khamenei said he was saddened that Iran’s achievements were not better presented to the people so as to “cheer them up.”

Although many Iranians take pride in their nation’s accomplishments, they say inflation, sanctions and fears of attacks by Israel and the United States are fueling widespread worries about the future and the competence of their leaders.

“My life is directly influenced by their decisions,” said Ali, a high school teacher. “The country should be managed in such a way that people can plan their lives.”

So widespread is the stress that a Health Ministry official facetiously suggested adding antidepressants to the water supply, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported.

“Depression is caused by hopelessness,” psychiatrist Mahdis Karami said. “There is no letup in the pressures facing those in the middle class. Nobody can plan for their future, so people are not happy or satisfied.”

Although some foreign-based dissidents have called for a boycott of the vote, the idea does not appear to be gaining active support from dissatisfied Iranians, mostly because they have already turned their backs on all things political. But that apathy may have the same effect as an organized boycott, analysts here say.

Ameneh Saeedi, 30, a secretary at a downtown Tehran office, said she preferred watching soap operas on Farsi-language satellite channels to involvement in politics. “They bring me to a different world,” she said. “I’m happy there.”

Special correspondents Somaye Malekian and Ramtin Rastin contributed to this report.

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