Among Iranian expats in D.C., hope for Rouhani in presidential election

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The Washington Times

By Laura Kelly  –  Friday, May 19, 2017

The women paused before entering the Iranian Interests Section at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., taking cardigans from their bags to cover their spaghetti straps, and pulling out scarfs to cover their hair.

They were heading into the building on Friday to vote in their country’s national election, a race largely seen as between incumbent President Hasan Rouhani, considered a moderate, and Ebrahim Raisi, the conservative, Islamist candidate.

“We used to dress this way in Iran,” one woman, who declined to give her name, said of the donning a head scarf and covering her bare arms. “For five minutes we don’t mind [to wear the hijab],” said another, “but when you’re living in Iran, we do mind it.”

There are about 55 million eligible Iranian voters, Al Jazeera reported, heading to 63,000 polling stations monitored by 1.5 million staffers and 350,000 security personnel. Results are expected to be announced sometime Saturday.

There are about one million Iranian-Americans, according to U.S. census data from 2009. Iranian state TV reported that there were about 30 ballot boxes in various U.S. cities.

Women’s rights, human rights, concerns about the economy, unemployment and relations with the Western world were among the concerns of D.C.’s Iranian voters.

And yet the election is largely seen as a referendum on the Iranian nuclear deal, a vote for Mr. Rouhani seen as supporting more open relations with the West.

A win by Mr. Raisi, however, is considered rejection of global diplomacy and a return to conservative, religious values.

“I voted for President Rouhani,” said Amirreza Mehraban, 36, an Iranian citizen living in the U.S. on a green card.

Mr. Mehraban said he supports Rouhani’s overtures to the West and hopes that his efforts will improve the economic situation in Iran. “President Rouhani tried to give more freedom, this is the hope for us to vote. We think life is better under Rouhani in Iran.”

Another woman who voted said the choice was between “worse and worse.”

Democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran is a fickle thing. While the population can vote for a presidential candidate they see as reflecting their values and hopes for the country, ultimate approval resides with the Supreme Leader.

While people can submit their candidacy for president, it is the Supreme Leader who chooses who can run and, after the votes are tallied, gives his final approval for the winner.

In 2009, massive protests swept the country — dubbed the green movement —with people protesting the announcement of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as the winner, believing the popular vote actually went to Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

Throughout the afternoon in D.C. on Friday, a few dozen people trickled in to the building. They were a mix of Iranian expats and dual citizens, students and young professionals and families. Some had been in the country for decades, others just a few months.

“I feel really great I got to participate,” said one Iranian-American woman, who declined to give her name because she’s planning on traveling to Iran and is worried of repercussions. “I’m all for the country moving in a more progressive way.”

Across the street, a small protest of about a dozen people shouted at the voters and at the Iranians in the building in general, holding pictures of the presidential candidates with X’s over their faces, calling the election a sham and displaying signs bearing the names of political prisoners in the country.

“We came here to say there is no free election in Iran — this is a selection, the final decision is always made by the Supreme Leader, he’s the one who orchestrates who is chosen,” said Shirin Nariman, president of the Iranian American Community of Virginia and one of the organizers of the protest.

Ms. Nariman said she was a former political prisoner in Iran, jailed for two years when she was 16-years-old. She left Iran shortly after she was released and has been living in the U.S. for the past 30 years. “I’ve dedicated my life to human rights in Iran, I’ve seen so many people executed, am a witness to torture… I want to make sure I see a free Iran, one day to see women not selling their bodies for money to keep their belly full, I don’t want to see young children having to be the provider for their family. I want to see a real, free election,” she said.

The protest was relatively peaceful, with a small police presence. The demonstrators shouted slogans and played revolutionary music. At one point a car drove by and threw water on the protesters; one man ran over to confront the passengers but was pulled away by a friend.

Iranian-American Montra Yasdani, a lawyer, said she voted because it is her duty. “It’s important to try and make a difference, if possible. I hope things in Iran can change.”

Another group — three young men and a woman — contemplated what to do with the rest of the afternoon now that they had voted. “Let’s go relax and have a beer.”

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