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Source: The Guardian

Jul 11, 2024

‘I feel betrayed by the west’: Iran’s freedom protesters react to their new president

Many who took to the streets in 2022 boycotted the poll that elected ‘reformist’ Masoud Pezeshkian, while others feel he is their only hope

By Deepa Parent

When a wave of protests broke out across Iran in September 2022 after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini for allegedly wearing her headscarf incorrectly, Leyla* was a teenager. She had bravely joined in and waved her scarf above her head in protest in front of security forces in Tehran and was later shot in the leg with pellets.

Almost two years on, Iran has elected a new president, Masoud Pezeshkian. The former heart surgeon and health minister, who has been labelled a reformist by media and political analysts, is reported to have said the brutal nature of the hijab crackdown jeopardised human dignity. But many Iranians the Guardian spoke to remain sceptical that anything will change.

For Leyla, the elections have not been a sign of progress. Although eligible to vote, she boycotted them.

“The west didn’t do anything even when we were beaten, tortured, raped and killed on the streets,” she says. “Unless we come back on the streets, nothing will change. I feel betrayed not only by the west, but also by my people who won’t come back on the streets.”

Others share Leyla’s cynicism. Soraya* was one of the leading figures of the protests organised by students in Valiasr Square in Tehran. The prominent roundabout on the country’s longest street was one of the first places the protests emerged in September 2022.

Soraya was chased by security forces and says she was hit on the head by a baton before being rescued by other protesters. Now working in finance, she says many in her age group had not even heard of the president-elect.

“Until last week none of my friends or I had heard Pezeshkian’s name. Maybe my mother’s generation did, but none of us in the protest groups knew he existed. I don’t know or care which part of the ideology he truly belongs to, but no ‘reformist’ or ‘fundamentalist’ will do anything useful for the country. The country’s decisive power lies only with the supreme leader [Ali Khamenei].”

Soraya says she wants to remind the world that those who marched on the streets in protest “still hope for the fall of the regime, no matter who is elected president”.

We are not falling for fake propaganda that he is against the hijab. Only you are fooled by it, not us

Ariana*, a student from Karaj, the capital of Alborz province, says media coverage of Pezeshkian’s win has not only upset her, but has also made her realise that “freedom-seeking” Iranians are on their own. Calling the branding of Pezeshkian “nonsense”, she says: “The media coverage on the doctor’s views, that he will be going against the hijab law, or is anti-mandatory hijab rules, is bullshit.

“If anything, we Iranians are smarter, more aware than before and we have done our research. We are not falling for fake propaganda that he is against the hijab. Only you are fooled by it, not us. This shouldn’t even be a question.”

In contrast, Ariana says Pezeshkian’s election win is, “like this brutal regime is offering us a silk hijab, in hopes that if it looks pretty we must be happy wearing it. We’re not. Oppression isn’t beautiful and the horrors that I’ve been through and witnessed my friends go through at the hands of the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] will never be forgotten. Some of us may have been blinded by pellets, but our memories are alive.”

Several young protesters interviewed say that boycotting the elections was non-negotiable. Kaveh*, a 19-year-old Kurdish man, saw a family member shot and killed during the protests in 2022. “It’s an insult to the memory of our family’s beloved child to even dream of voting for this regime,” he says.

According to Iran’s interior ministry, the official turnout in the first round of the presidential election was 40% – the lowest since the 1979 revolution – with 50% voting in the second round.

People queueing for ice-cream in Tehran on the eve of the second round of the presidential election. Photograph: Raheb Homavandi/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Iran’s judiciary announced it had arrested more than 100 people for the “criminal” act of committing “elections violations” and discouraging voters. The judiciary spokesperson said hundreds of Instagram accounts were flagged as having called for a boycott of the election.

But not all protesters joined in the boycott. A few months ago, the idea of even participating in the presidential elections would have been an “impossible thought” for Mahmood*, a student then based in the city of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran. He remembers being locked into his university while Basij [paramilitary volunteer militia] circled the campus and held the protesting students hostage for hours.

“I haven’t told my friends that I voted because I don’t want to upset them,” says Mahmood. “I gave the opposition a chance to stand up for us. Having realised we may not have a strong opposition inside the country yet, I voted for Pezeshkian because I am tired of waiting.

I know it’s not what we wanted and I haven’t forgotten the sacrifices. But in the hope that my countrymen will get a chance to breathe, I went against the calls of boycott.”

* Names have been changed

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