By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Thirty years after the revolution that sent many of their families fleeing to a new life in the West, local Iranians streamed to Wisconsin Avenue yesterday, hoping to make a difference in a hotly contested election half a world away.
They came singly or in groups to the second-floor office where the Iranian government maintains an interests section for citizens in the absence of an embassy. Women stopped to pull headscarves over their hair and long-sleeved shirts over their tank tops before entering.
Some said they were voting in an Iranian election for the first time, and most said they fiercely wanted a change from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
For many, simply not being him was enough to recommend a candidate.
"I want my president not to be Ahmadinejad," said Hossein Radmard, 26, one of a group of students who had driven three hours from Morgantown, W.Va. "He doesn't represent what Iranians are and what Iran should be."
"We are so fed up with Ahmadinejad's policy and his fanaticism and fascism," said Azadeh Julia Tassavoli, 31, a graduate student who lives in Reston. "We're not expecting Iran to become a democratic country overnight, but change has to come from somewhere."
By mid-afternoon, the interests section reported that more than 500 people had come in, triple the number in previous elections. Forty-one sites were set up across the country, including in Potomac, Manassas and Tysons Corner. About 30,000 Iranians live in the Washington region.
In Iran, both leading candidates were declaring victory.
Most interviewed here said they were voting for Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mehdi Karroubi, the two candidates considered more liberal and a rebuke to Ahmadinejad's presidency.
Iranians inside and outside Iran are heavy Web users, and this election saw an explosion of "get out the vote" campaigns online. Some voters also said they were inspired by the energy of the U.S. presidential election in November.
"A few of us in the D.C. area, we volunteered with the Obama campaign, so we got a lot of ideas from that," said Negar Mortazavi, 27, a Falls Church resident who helped organize a Web site called Setadema, with telephone campaigns and YouTube videos encouraging Iranians worldwide to vote.
Iranians voting here had wish lists that echoed many of their compatriots' back home, including a more democratic system and more social rights, and some criticized the deep economic morass Iran has sunk into under current leadership.
They also listed Iran's image abroad as an issue that struck them personally and said they were tired of feeling embarrassed by their home country's president.
"We've been isolated, we've been introduced to the entire world as a fanatic country," Tassavoli said. "It's not. Iran is a great country with a great culture."
"The outcome could really affect how our lives will be in the next few years," said Maryam Farmand, 28, a graduate student at George Washington University who came from Iran four years ago. With the difficult relations between the two countries, she said, it is hard for her and her relatives to go back and forth.
But not all who came out of the voting booth yesterday were rooting for change.
"I love this government of Ahmadinejad for one reason, and that reason is he's demanding respect for Iran," said Hossain Mousavi, 61, who left Iran 30 years ago and lives in the District. "The previous government listened to the West, and the result was they got put on the axis of evil. . . . Since he got into power they're starting to talk to him."
The high turnout among Iranians at home and abroad was a change from the last presidential election, when many reform-minded Iranians abstained from voting, frustrated at the choices.
"Four years ago, most Iranians like me decided to stay away, just because we thought it wouldn't make a difference," said Mohammad Sarfarazi, 42, a Bethesda cardiologist who voted yesterday in Potomac. "But we saw that it does make a difference. It was a historical lesson for all of us."
Sarfarazi said this was his first vote in an Iranian election, 30 years after coming to the United States.
"It's just a feeling that you're part of this whole movement, and feel that you're engaged by voting," he said, adding that he had been swept up by the groundswell of energy in Iran and around the world.
"For me, it was hard not to be moved -- seeing all the pictures, people on the street, on YouTube," he said, adding, "I think people just get a sense that this is the moment."