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Iranians Prepare For Country's Upcoming Presidential Election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To Iran now where voters will head to the polls on Friday. Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran four years ago, and he is hoping to keep it that way. He's up for re-election. To talk about his chances and what kind of choice Iranian voters face, we've reached out to Thomas Erdbrink. He's The New York Times bureau chief in Tehran. Thomas, thanks for joining us.

THOMAS ERDBRINK: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So how likely is it looking that President Rouhani will remain President Rouhani and win another term?

ERDBRINK: Well, I'm no fortuneteller, but I think as it is now, it looks increasingly probable that Hassan Rouhani will be Iran's next president, even though Iranian elections are notoriously difficult to predict, I know for instance in the city of his two main competitors, Mashhad in north of Iran close to the Afghan border. And this is a place where you would really expect the base of his competitors to be very strong.

But when I go out on the street here and ask several people who they will vote for, a lot of them are still saying Hassan Rouhani because he is a man promising to change this country. He's promising reforms. He's promising more freedom. He's promising better economic relations with other countries.

KELLY: OK. So we have Rouhani, who as you mentioned is in a more moderate reformist camp in Iran. Who is up against him?

ERDBRINK: Yeah. There are six pre-selected candidates here in Iran, and his two main competitors are both conservatives. As I said, they're both in the city Mashhad. The first one is currently the mayor of Tehran, airline pilot, former police commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. And he says that he can create 5 million extra jobs. Then there's the other candidate, and he is the most outspoken hardline candidate, a man who wants to make Iran self-sufficient. This is a cleric called Ebrahim Raisi.

KELLY: You know, one of the criticisms, as you mentioned, that has been leveled at President Rouhani is that he swept into office, he promised economic reform. Are you able to paint us any kind of picture of the quality of life of whether sanctions relief has actually helped people's lives improve?

ERDBRINK: Well, I was just talking to two young guys at the coffee shop, and they were both between 20 and 25 years old. For those two guys, President Rouhani hasn't delivered. They're either out of work or they will be out of work. What President Rouhani is saying to these people is that, wait, give me time. Well, of course, for two students here on the streets of Mashhad, that is a world away. They want to see change right now.

KELLY: One question that will be very much on the mind of Americans following elections in Tehran is, of course, the nuclear deal which came into being under President Rouhani's tenure. Will that stay in place no matter who wins?

ERDBRINK: I think it's very much in the Iranian establishment's interest to keep the nuclear deal in place. The Iranians know that if they have to return to a time of sanctions, it will be detrimental to their economy. So no matter who becomes Iran's next president, they will try and keep this nuclear agreement. And, of course, we must be honest, it wasn't President Rouhani who created this nuclear deal in Iran. You can't make big decisions without the supreme leader signing off on it. So in the end, this is a decision by the highest power in Iran.

KELLY: Is that what Iranians will be voting on or is it, like, just about everywhere on Earth that people are voting based on how they feel this might shake down into their ordinary life?

ERDBRINK: It actually shows how Iran over the decades has become a less ideological and more normal country because it's not ideology. It is the economy (unintelligible). And if you go to Tehran or to Mashhad or to the smaller city here in Iran, people will tell you I want life to improve for me, for my family. I want to send my children to school. I want to have a pension. They're not that much different from the rest of the world.

KELLY: That's Thomas Erdbrink. He is the Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, and he joined us via Skype from Mashhad in the north of Iran. Thomas Erdbrink, thank you.

ERDBRINK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.