DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. And let's hear now the tension in a country that is making a big choice. Iran is holding its election today. President Hasan Rouhani won a surprise victory back in 2013, and then he went on to make a nuclear deal with the West. It was a historic shift in relations with Iran's longtime enemy, the United States. Well, now Iranians will decide if they want to give Rouhani a second term. Our MORNING EDITION co-host Steve Inskeep is in Tehran on election day.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hi there, David.
GREENE: So what does election day feel like in Iran?
INSKEEP: It has felt anxious the last several days. And you can understand why if you think about how anxious Americans were before last year's election.
INSKEEP: Well, in Iran, the president is not the top official, but a lot of voters think this election could signal a shift in direction depending on how it goes. President Rouhani favors more openness to the world while his main opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, has not said he would overturn the nuclear deal, for example, but he's considered way more conservative. And the candidates have been attacking each other pretty strongly.
GREENE: So I know you've been spending time with voters. Did you hear that anxiety in their voices?
INSKEEP: Yeah, and even anger or cynicism or bitterness about the situation. And I want to play you some voices of people I met in Qazvin, a small city well outside of the capital, Tehran. The attractions there include a Caravanserai, which is this huge brick complex where camel caravans stopped hundreds of years ago. Now it's a kind of shopping bazaar, and stores line these brick passageways. And inside there, we met a local shopkeeper named Said.
What do you sell?
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken) Gold.
INSKEEP: You sell gold.
SAID: Very bad, very bad (laughter).
INSKEEP: Very bad?
Said means business is bad, selling jewelry to tourists. He's not feeling great about the economy or about the government. In fact, he said the people live for themselves, and the government lives for itself. He's so discouraged, he did not vote in the historic election in 2013. But now he says this.
SAID: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "This time, I feel if I don't vote, the situation will get worse." He thinks President Rouhani's conservative challenger would take the country backward. We heard something even more stark from a young man we met just down that brick passageway.
How old are you?
INSKEEP: Twenty years old. So this year is the first presidential election.
ARSHAM: It's my first opportunity to vote.
INSKEEP: His name is Arsham. He's studying tourism management, hoping to make a career from a business that President Rouhani has promoted. And he offered a dark view of Rouhani's more conservative opponent.
ARSHAM: Raisi's religious. If he be president, it should be disaster.
INSKEEP: You said you don't like Raisi because he's religious. Are you religious?
ARSHAM: No, I'm not religious. A religious can be - control us.
INSKEEP: He explains, David, he's skeptical of too much clerical control. Now, to be clear, Iran is not going to be choosing for or against clerical government any time soon because even President Rouhani is a cleric, as is the supreme leader, of course. But Rouhani is seen as way more open-minded.
GREENE: OK, Steve, so you're hearing concerns, suspicions, about if the conservative challenger here won. But I gather that doesn't necessarily mean that everyone is happy with President Rouhani and what he's done.
INSKEEP: No. I'm also hearing strong views about him. We heard on the program yesterday from conservative voters who fear he's going to loosen relations between men and women. And there are people who are very sour about the economy here. In Qazvin, we walked into a real estate office, and we talked with the brokers, one of whom was named Niamatullah. And he said the office used to sell 15 houses per month. Now maybe it's two or three. And he's so down on the government's management, he doesn't even plan to vote. And he offered us a parable to explain why.
NIAMATULLAH: (Foreign language spoken).
INSKEEP: "If the father of a family is addicted," he said, "the whole family will collapse." And he said the government is like that father. He said he could tell us even stronger things but, well, he leaned into our microphone and made this sound...
NIAMATULLAH: (Imitating sound of slashed throat).
INSKEEP: ...While drawing a finger across his throat.
GREENE: God, that is harsh. Are you hearing a lot of that?
INSKEEP: Yes, a lot. There is some optimism. It's just that people see stark differences. If President Rouhani wants better relations with the world, not everybody here does. And we had a demonstration of that on a Qazvin street. We were interviewing an older man when some young men moved in close.
INSKEEP: These young men shouted that the man shouldn't be talking with foreigners and that our interpreter shouldn't work with foreigners. And it took an extended argument before they went away.
GREENE: Steve, just help our listeners understand why this election might matter, you know, to the United States.
INSKEEP: Well, it is going to matter, not massively because Iran is Iran and the supreme leader is the supreme leader. A newspaper editor here pointed out to us that no matter who is president, he's just one person. But Rouhani's election made a difference four years ago. And whoever wins this election becomes the person who faces President Trump. And that's a big deal because Trump's administration has kept the nuclear deal but wants to pressure Iran, and the president is visiting Iran's rival, Saudi Arabia, this weekend, by the way.
GREENE: All right, yeah, in his first foreign trip as president. That's our co-host Steve Inskeep who is in Tehran. Steve, thanks and safe travels.
INSKEEP: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACKRYTE'S "CORDIAL JUICE INCIDENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.