Young Iranians, once avid reformers, leave politics behind
Many who once called for change have turned away from politics altogether and won't be voting in Friday's election.
Alireza Mahfouzian knows how it feels on the front line of Iran's culture wars. When he graduated from high school, the police shaved off his too-radical long hair. He has been in court 20 times for social infractions and boasts that he knew the courthouse "room by room."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Caught drinking alcohol years ago, he received 75 lashes to his back – all the price, he says, of growing up and testing limits in the Islamic Republic.
But Mr. Mahfouzian is now older and wiser and has come to terms with the restrictions of Iran. Like many here in their late 20s and early 30s who were once foot soldiers in Iran's reform movement, he has given up on politics and has little interest in Friday's vote for the 290-seat parliament. Hundreds of reformists have been disqualified in an election that amounts to a referendum on this country's conservative leadership.
"They are walking away from the state. They are pushing away politics," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a sociologist at Tehran University. "I call this the 'Era of Rethinking.' These days Iranians are thinking how they can find a better way."
Few doubt that conservatives – many loyal to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – will maintain their majority in parliament. But past reform icons, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, are calling for high turnout anyway, arguing that every reformist seat chips away at hard-line dominance.
"The vote is the ultimate criteria," he said Tuesday. "Those who do not believe in the vote are not the friends of the people."
But Mahfouzian, 28, and many like him, does not even plan on going to the polls. The one-time rule-breaker, who the Monitor met in 2000 sneaking a kiss with his girlfriend on the ski slopes not far from Tehran, is too busy trying to save his new fast-food restaurant.
"Business is not so good. There is no optimism," says Mahfouzian, whose take-out menu includes sandwiches with sheep brain and tongue salad. Inflation has eaten away any profits; erratic supply means items like tongue aren't available every day ("The cows are cold," was one supplier's excuse.)
He says he'll have to close his restaurant "unless there is a miracle" and has already increased the price of a pizza nearly 60 percent, from $2.40 to $3.80. His dream of starting a fast-food chain inside and outside Iran is gone.
The vast demographic that once dominated electoral politics in Iran is now marked by a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Iran's young people make up two-thirds of the population, but have been battered by a poor economy, by the triumph of hard-line conservatives, and the conviction that their vote changes nothing.
"Our country is moving ahead with these [conservative] beliefs," says Mahfouzian. "We can either move with them, or move out. We have no other choice."
The apolitical law student
Political choice is something that Tooska, a Tehran law student who asked that her real name not be used, says she gave up long ago. Like a number of Western-leaning young Iranians who supported the reform movement but were fed up with its ineffectiveness, she last voted in 2005 to prevent the archconservative Mr. Ahmadinejad from coming to power.