Tehran awaits crucial elections on Iran’s direction after nuclear deal

Story highlights

Some see Iran elections as a referendum on President Hassan Rouhani, nuclear deal

Many Iranian youths say life has improved with Rouhani in office

Others, particularly conservatives, express concerns about Western influence on Iran

Tehran, Iran CNN  — 

Campaign billboards and posters plaster Tehran. They’re on lampposts, sides of buildings and trees – all proof that Friday’s elections will likely be contentious and critical for Iran.

“The future that I am waiting for is that my people and my country reach a level of a good life,” Mobir Ghafari Habashi said Wednesday, the last day of campaigning.

“Our people deserve to have a better life. And this will happen in the very near future,” the 20-something said.

In late-morning traffic, activists dodge cars in the Iranian capital’s notorious traffic, slipping fliers into open windows of vehicles whether passengers want them or not. (Some clearly don’t, promptly throwing the fliers back out on the street.)

Then there are billboards such as one of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, casting a ballot, an apparent attempt to bolster turnout.

READ: Here’s why you should care about Iran vote

In many ways, Friday’s parliamentary vote will be a referendum on centrist President Hassan Rouhani’s 2½ years in office. More specifically, it could be seen as a chance for Iranians to weigh in on the nuclear deal Rouhani signed that traded limits on Iran’s nuclear program for highly desired sanctions relief.

Many youths feel Iran better under Rouhani

“It’s obvious that he understands the problem,” said Parnian Seyfe, 19, standing in a flag-filled square outside the reformist candidates’ headquarters. “And he’s trying to solve it (in logical) ways, not war or anything.”

She and her friends, in their stylish Western clothes, are part of Iran’s massive young population – more than 60% of 77 million Iranians are under 30, according to World Bank figures from 2013.

Youth unemployment and underemployment are enormous issues for young people such as Seyfe, who is studying computer engineering.

She said her life had markedly improved in the past year in several ways, including a feeling of being more comfortable and less likely to be questioned when going out.

READ: Tehran’s ‘baby’ American-made nuclear reactor

“I couldn’t even walk in the streets with safety,” Seyfe explained, saying Iranian police would “try to find someone who has a problem in their appearance, the dress they wear.”

“And now it’s less (than it was),” she said.

But Seyfe is far from wholly representative.

‘Death to America’ chants still resonate

For all those who have cheered Iran’s growing openness under Rouhani, others have resisted.

Murals that read, “Down with America,” still stand. There’s no doubt anti-Western sentiment remains very much a part of Iranian politics.

Khamenei touched on those feelings in a string of tweets Wednesday. One read, “The English miss interfering in the affairs of Iran.”

Earlier this week, according to the state news agency IRNA, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – who chairs an important oversight body – rejected rumors that England had had a say in the list of reformist candidates. He called it “an insult to Iranian people’s wisdom.”

The feeling of outside interference is palpable.

Across the city from the reformists’ headquarters, a large banner outside a theater reads, “No to English influence.” Important conservative candidates and clerics convened inside, following up a prayer and the national anthem with chants of “Death to America,” as if on cue.

Iran will not ‘let America influence our affairs’

Those chants aside, the conservatives’ gathering was more like a sedate sermon than an emotional rally.

A famous Iranian cleric, Alireza Panahian – flanked by photos of other clerics and Khamenei – sat at a small table in the middle of the stage, talking about the state of Iran.

He listened as one young woman referred to “our enemies in the world who don’t like Islam.”

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Another woman, asked by CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen whether America’s influence had grown in Iran since the nuclear deal, was full of patriotic fervor, shaking her fist as she spoke.

“We recognize that as an influence, and inshallah (God willing) we will stop the Americans from doing that.

“Our nation (will) not let America influence our affairs,” the woman continued. ‘We defend with our lives our country and leadership. Be sure about that.”