Sanctions Are Lifting, But Iranians Are Still Waiting For The Benefits

Feb 23, 2016
Originally published on February 25, 2016 4:44 am

Iran's capital, Tehran, is in political overdrive this week. Candidates for parliament are battling the Tehran traffic, vying for support in Friday's elections.

This is Iran's first ballot since a nuclear agreement last July that brought the lifting of international sanctions in January. Long before the nuclear deal was signed, Iranians were told by their leaders that the removal of sanctions would bring more opportunity and better living standards.

But for the most part, ordinary Iranians aren't seeing improvements so far.

Taxi driver Arif Turkoshvand talks politics while weaving through the always congested streets. He explains that he always backed the hardliners and ignored those who want to reform the Islamic Revolution he grew up with.

But now he's no longer as certain.

"In the past few years, people are less interested in ideology," he says. "They're looking for a better life, something real, while parties on all sides seem to only look out for themselves. If I can find someone, a reformer or a hardliner, who will go to parliament and do what the people want, like fixing this terrible traffic, they'll get my vote."

However, the Iranian political system is geared to favor the conservatives.

The Guardian Council, which approves or nixes potential candidates, has knocked many reformist politicians off the ballot, to the point where reform blocs are recruiting conservative candidates just to fill out their ballot lists.

Hardliners, meanwhile, are fighting among themselves because there isn't room for all of them on the conservative blocs.

The President's Big Bet

One candidate, Hussein Sheikhol Eslam, is a diplomat who describes himself as a centrist. He says he's not out to undermine President Hassan Rouhani, who's seen as a moderate. But he does think Rouhani made a mistake by promising an almost a magical economic recovery while the nuclear deal was being negotiated.

"The big mistake he made, he [told] people that the economy will start flourishing as soon as the deal is signed," he says. "This wasn't wise. From the beginning, he put all of his investment in this deal."

Rouhani will face re-election next year and faces the challenge of delivering economic growth to people at street level, not just the business elites.

And to get a parliament he can work with, Rouhani needs a big turnout by moderate and reform voters, to offset the number of extreme hardliners in the legislature. But the lack of visible economic upturn makes it that much harder to count on an enthusiastic turnout by reformers.

In one of Tehran's many urban parks, aviaries of brightly colored birds give a tropical soundtrack to the couples chatting on benches. Here, an Iranian journalist agrees to discuss the mood of the voters if we use only her first name, Sheva.

She says people want to believe parliament can help Rouhani boost the economy, but they're far from convinced.

"People do hope that the parliament can help turn things around," she says. "Unfortunately, up to now, parliaments have not done a very good job at all. So people in Iran are living on hope. But they need more than hope from the parliament."

The candidates keep crisscrossing the city, racing through this one-week campaign season in hopes of convincing voters that this parliament will actually make a difference in their lives.

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Iran's capital is in political overdrive this week. Candidates for parliament are battling the Tehran traffic, working for votes in elections being held Friday. A government vetting council has disqualified some reform-oriented candidates from running. And there's another obstacle for reformers. This is the first ballot since the nuclear agreement lifted international sanctions last month and brought the promise of better times. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Tehran average Iranians aren't seeing evidence yet that the sanctions relief will improve their lives.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Iranians have been told by their leaders for at least two years that the lifting of sanctions would bring more opportunity and better living standards. But for the most part, ordinary Iranians are seeing more of the same.

ARIF TURKOSHVAND: (Foreign language spoken).

KENYON: Taxi driver Arif Turkoshvand talks politics while weaving in and out of the ever-present traffic. He explains that it's getting harder decide who to vote for. He always backed the hardliners and ignored those who want to reform the Islamic revolution he grew up with. But now he's no longer as certain.

TURKOSHVAND: (Through interpreter) In the past few years, people are less interested in ideology. They're looking for a better life, something real while parties on all sides seem to only look out for themselves. If I can find someone, a reformer or a hardliner, who will go to parliament and do what the people want, like fixing this terrible traffic, they'll get my vote.

KENYON: The system has been arranged to favor the conservatives already. Iran's guardian council has knocked many reformist politicians off the ballot, to the point where reform blocs are recruiting conservative candidates to fill out their lists. Hardliners, meanwhile, are fighting amongst themselves because there isn't room for all of them. We met one candidate, Hussein Sheikhol Eslam, a diplomat who describes himself as a centrist. He's not out to undermine President Hassan Rouhani, who's seen as a moderate. But he does think Rouhani made a mistake in promising almost a magical economic recovery to Iranians while the nuclear deal was being so painstakingly negotiated.

HUSSEIN SHEIKHOL ESLAM: You see, the big mistake he made he gave this thing to the people that the economy will start flourishing as soon as the deal is signed. This wasn't wise. From the beginning, he put all of his investment on this deal. He has to do it.

KENYON: What Rouhani has to do between this Friday's parliamentary vote and his own presidential contest next year is deliver the economic growth people have been waiting for since the nuclear deal was announced - at the street level, not just for the business elites. And to get a parliament he can work with, Rouhani needs moderate and reform voters to make a big turnout Friday to keep the number of extreme hardliners to a minimum. But the lack of visible economic upturn makes it that much harder to count on an enthusiastic pro-reform turnout.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KENYON: In one of Tehran's many urban parks, aviaries of brightly colored birds give a tropical soundtrack to the couples chatting on benches. An Iranian journalist agrees to discuss the mood of the voters candidly if we use only her first name, Sheva. She says people want to believe parliament can help Rouhani boost the economy, but they're far from convinced.

SHEVA: (Through interpreter) People do hope that the parliament can help turn things around. Unfortunately, up to now, parliaments have not done a very good job at all. So people in Iran are living on hope, but they need more than hope from the parliament.

KENYON: The candidates will spend another night crisscrossing the city, racing through this one-week campaign season in hopes of convincing voters that this parliament will actually make a difference in their lives. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Tehran. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.