I walked into the kitchen at work the other day and my Iranian colleagues stood there staring off into nothingness.
"You guys look depressed." I observed.
They all smiled half smiles. The gloom in the room was heavy.
It quickly dawned on me why, after I looked at the time, it was around 11 a.m. "Did you all watch it? Is it over?"
"Yea." They chimed in. The second Iranian presidential debate had just finished. The election was becoming more and more of a sham, the government had only allowed a very select group of candidates to run for presidency and it seemed that the candidates represented only the narrowest spectrum of views. Kind of like a democratic contest between eight Southern Baptist preachers, or in the words of one Iran analyst "like if only tea party candidates were allowed to run for US president," voters were finding themselves stuck trying to relate to candidates with questionable views on human rights, women's rights, and histories of brutality within the system.
Watching a bit of the debates myself, I saw that even though they all come from the most conservative ranks within Iran, there were some notable differences among them. First of all, the debates were not an orchestrated Soviet style discussion. On a fancy stage, the debate looked more like a glitzier attempt at the fairly inelegant CNN debates in the US. During the discussions, the candidates actually went at each other with serious accusations. The most unlikely of them, Velayati, close to Ayatollah Khamenei, said to head nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, "You've been in charge of our diplomacy for five years, and you've gotten us nowhere, and our situation is worse... Diplomacy is an art... It's like you go the store and the storekeeper says the thing you want costs $10 and you say you want to pay $2 and walk out."
This, like everything in Iran, complicates black and white views about the country. There is a contest. It's just not meant to represent the views of large swaths of the population. The heaviness in the kitchen came not only at the frustration of the inability to be Iranian and have your views represented in the government, but also from the grand disillusionment of the 2009 elections which was followed by days of protest, arrests, and even bloodshed.
Even for the most religious in Iran, the 2009 elections is largely known by those who still believed in the Islamic Republic as the grand moment of betrayal. The speed with which the government announced Ahmadinejad as the winner (not allowing sufficient time for a vote count) and the brutality of the government during the protests that ensued, had a long time believer in the Islamic Republic and devout Shia saying, "I felt like my husband cheated on me."
Now in the kitchen at work in 2013, the little hope that remained at the beginning of the election season was slowly being eked out of voters. To an outsider, hope would seem like a funny word to be used with a system so unforgiving to even its most loyal, but Iranians have an incredible capacity for hope, often leading to delusion when survival required it.
To be clear, this time, my colleagues weren't hoping in the government, or Supreme Leader, but in the personalities that still remained in the game and their ability to influence the current realities in the country. Some hoped that former president Khatami would run again and change the mood in the country, and help it look outward into the world again. Others hoped for someone brave enough to begin to disturb the system from the top and initiate a change, no matter how small.
But when it came time for candidates to put in their requests to run for candidacy, the most centrist and perhaps most powerful, candidate, Hashemi Rafsanjani -- known as one of the father's of the revolution -- was rejected by the deciding council. If before his potential candidacy skepticism about the validity of election was high, afterwards, everyone began to discuss the insult the elections are becoming to the intelligence of Iranians.
After the eight candidates were chosen, and the debates began, the absurdity of the event became more apparent and talk of boycott became widespread, well, at least outside of the country.
Talking to one abstaining voter, she said, "If I was inside, I would vote, because the situation is so desperate, and you have no options, there's no regime change, no revolution, nothing like that, so you vote because you need to influence where you can... I just hope they actually count the votes this time."
Yesterday a famous satirist made a post about his changing emotions towards the reformist candidate that decided to step down from the contest so that the more centrist candidate could take the votes. He commented on what a positive and strategic move on the part of the reformists. But the format of his message reminded me of how quickly any populace can adapt its expectations and how quickly candidates can re-brand themselves. The reformist candidate of today is the oppressor of yesterday. Looking at Rouhani's campaign rallies, he talks as if he is the enemy of the very state that placed him as the head of National Security Council and is allowing him to run for power. And the crowds are enthusiastic and vocal. Hope springs eternal that change is imminent.
Watching the high definition Rouhani campaign video released yesterday, Rouhani speech format is so similar to Obama's that I'm almost surprised. "It's been a long and difficult road from where we started... [crowds cheer]... and with the support of Rafsanjani... [even louder cheering] and Khatami... [even louder cheering] "I made my way on this journey..."
His campaign video (which says it was partially censored) and speeches address the main issues in society, one young man in the video discusses how he built medical supplies to sell inside of the country but because of bureaucracy and red tape, his equipment is collecting dust and he's simply roaming around aimless with nothing to do. During his speech, Rouhani talks about bringing back the value of the Rial and taking away the shame of the Iranian passport. For me this is noteworthy, for my friends, this is just election talk.
Even his video addresses the vote question. In documentary format, a political scientist is interviewed and he argues that despite the flawed and imperfect election system in Iran, the vote is the only way to normalize the country again, and bring it into the international system.
In the kitchen I asked my colleagues how come, if everyone feels the election is an insult, people don't organize a boycott.
"We're waiting to see which one of the two more progressive candidates will be endorsed by the leaders of the progressive party, then we'll decide whether to boycott."
"Why don't you organize a petition to talk about how the election isn't representative?"
The prevailing feeling in the kitchen and on Facebook, for an outsider, is similar to how my friends react to Game of Thrones. There's a team of writers surprising and calling the shots each week, and each week the viewers are deciding whether to watch or not. There's no dialogue between the government and the viewers, it's monologue handed down from the writers above. The Iranian people are somehow the consumers of the election rather than the producers.
Given the stark differences in democratic institutions between the Turkey and Iran, there's not much to compare, but there's a similarity between the way Erdogan regards the progressive voices in his country and the way Khamenei does: with complete disregard. And there's a similarity with the way Turks and Iranians go through cycles of protest and submission, particularly to the strong patriarchs in their countries.
Similar to the Turks, Iranians decided to impose their voices onto the government by filling in the streets and demanding to be heard in 2009. Sadly, the result was increased oppression. Which has a doubling effect on citizens. If you try, and you are your boldest, and most courageous, and nothing comes of it, but more oppression and closed-ness, two things can result: 1) you get scared in the way that you've never been before, and 2) you care less than you ever did before.
I wondered, rather than the two extremes of protest or submission, why not create a space, if it doesn't exist within the established institutions, to use the Internet and tell the government what is needed. Why work within the space that's been given? And why talk about the things that are talked about in the debates? Why not start new conversations, about the economy, or foreign policy, why not demand the things that you want instead of working within the confines of the things on offer?
The smaller the space allowed for expression and interaction, the larger the space for creative initiative. What Iran needs is not another critique of what's wrong, but a conversation among the people by the people about what would make it right. No Supreme Leaders, no Rule Makers, no Decision Makers, just people. The big question in Iran is if it weren't this way, what way would it be?
But I get it. There are times and places, particularly Iran after 2009 when people were killed and dozens were arrested, when people give up on creating and finding spaces to assert their will. When the world is sanctioning you, when no one can get a job, when you're in the contest for the most unpopular citizen in the world. When the goal is to get on with a day. And during those times, hope, as we know well in the U.S., feels like all of you've got.