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Iran’s 2009 presidential elections brought unprecedented protests and violence throughout the country. There was an international consensus that the elections had been rigged in favor of the conservative incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since then, the Green Movement (which called for the election results to be tossed out and deemed a fraud), led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, has largely been quieted, and there continues to be a fear that pro-reform activists will be arrested and put in jail for their activities. In fact, Mousavi, his wife, and Karroubi are still under house arrest.
So what are we supposed to expect this time around? Surely nobody wants the same violence as 2009. Ayatollah Khamenei has ordered the Revolutionary Guard to step up its presence in the streets to ensure that people don’t protest. The Revolutionary Guard-run Fars news agency released a story earlier this week saying one of the Reformist candidates may be disqualified for “generating excitement”. There were also rumors that some of his supporters had been arrested. These rumors turned out to be false, but this sort of thing is what the government has been using to essentially keep the Reformists in check.
Some international news outlets have called the Iranian presidential election one of the most important elections this year and rightly so. The Iranian president is directly involved with international negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear power. It would seem as if the Western world is waiting with bated breath to see who the next president will be —another conservative who won’t challenge the Supreme Leader and continue President Ahmadinejad’s hardline attitude, or the one remaining Reformist who has the potential to change the Islamic Republic. So, too, are the Iranian people. 60 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30, and hungry for change. Not necessarily a revolution to overthrow the Islamic Republic, but, as in 2009, an evolution of policies that would make the country more liberal, perhaps the way it was under reformist presidents; Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. These young people are being affected by high unemployment, the same way young people all over the world are being affected. This is certainly a driving factor in their call for reform in the government.
While there are many supporters of the Reformist party, there are many Conservatives who don’t think change is necessary. One of the biggest problems the country faces with change is determining whether they will or will not affect the morals so many Iranians hold dear to them. Parents want their children to grow up and stay out of trouble. They don’t want their children to be influenced by bad role models who don’t demonstrate what their parents consider to be good morals. Some people don’t want to outright support a Reformist candidate because they have a fear that the morals the Islamic Republic has upheld will cease to be so central to their lives.
Despite all of the potential consequences of today's election, we can’t forget that the real impact will be felt among nearly 75 million Iranians inside Iran and five million around the world. Iran’s economy has been hard hit by the sanctions from Western countries, and while they have been put in place in the name of international security, they have only been seen to hurt the people. The healthcare has also been hit hard by sanctions. While Iran produces many medicines, and medicine is not included in sanctions, the country has been barred from using international payment systems and therefore cannot pay to import medications for diseases like cancer. We also cannot forget that Iran is a young country. As I stated previously, the majority of the population is under the age of 30 and are far more moderate than Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, and want a relationship to exist between Iran and the United States. At this point, however, it’s not just about Iran having a diplomatic relationship with the United States or any other country. Lives are very much at stake.
(Ambassador Layla Karimi-Asl in Pittsburgh at last year's Summit)
We can take away many things from this today’s election. Of course this election will decide what sort of relationship Iran will have with the West for at least the next four years. It will decide if Iran will continue to be somewhat of a pariah state, with few countries wanting to have any sort of relationship with it. But most important of all, it will decide how the people will live their lives, if they will be allowed to have their voices heard, rather than being silenced with the threat of imprisonment. It will decide if Iranians with serious illnesses will be caught in the crosshairs of international sanctions as unintended consequences put their lives at risk.
Iran’s presidential election is undoubtedly one that has the potential to, without sounding cliché, change the world. 50 million people are eligible to vote and voter turnout is expected to be at least 65 percent. It’s undeniable that the people will be heard. What we have to hope for, however, is that the winner will be allowed to win, and that the country will be able to avoid any violent protests that would mirror those of 2009.