Iran’s Election: Three Battle It Out as Islamic Republic Heads to the Polls

Six men, vetted by religious leadership, are in the running, but only half are considered to be serious contenders

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Newsha Tavakolian / Polaris for TIME

Youths hang out in the western part of Tehran, where mostly middle-class families live. They are still unsure of whom to vote for, or if they will vote at all, they said

When Iranians are faced with difficult decisions, they usually talk to their friends and family. But if the issue is particularly thorny, and calls for a little divine assistance, they can also pick up the phone. At the other end of the line is Farahjolah Moussavi, a cleric in residence at the former home of the late Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, in Qom, a city of Islamic seminaries a few hours south of Tehran. Most days Moussavi, a bearded, turbaned Dear Abby, fields questions from troubled parents: What to do with a drug-addicted son? Should we accept a proposal of marriage for our teenage daughter? But lately he’s been getting questions of a different kind: Whom should I vote for?

On June 14, Iranians go to the polls to elect a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has served two terms. Six men, vetted by Iran’s religious leadership, are in the running, but only three are considered to be serious contenders. These include arch-conservative chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, another conservative, who, as mayor of Tehran, has a good administrative track record. Hassan Rouhani, the sole moderate in a field of conservatives, is expected to do well with young voters who believe he will be able to correct the conservative tilt of Ahmadinejad’s past two terms.

(MORE: Iran Election: Reformers Gain Momentum in Final Days of Campaign)

But one day before the presidential election, Moussavi isn’t making any endorsements. Instead, he says, he counsels his petitioners to study up on the candidates’ qualifications and platforms. “The Koran advises the followers of Islam to follow those who follow God. Someone who is just, who is pious and who is wise.” Those aren’t qualities easily divined from campaign posters or televised debates, so I press a little further. What would the Ayatullah do? Moussavi, who worked with Khomeini in the early days of the revolution, pauses a moment. “The Imam was not someone who submits to tyranny. We did not make this revolution to be under the dominance of other nations.”

The enigmatic response is an oblique reference to the issue of sanctions, which has been the underlying theme of the entire election. When Iranians talk about the bad economy, they are not just talking about a worldwide economic slump, but about punishing economic sanctions imposed upon the country for continuing to enrich uranium. Iran says it is doing so purely for peaceful purposes. The international community, however, fears that Iran might be secretly trying to build a nuclear arsenal, and is continuing with sanctions in an effort to force it to the negotiating table. The candidates, reflecting the national mood and the will of the country’s religious leadership, have all pledged that they will not compromise Iran’s right to continue peaceful nuclear development. But some have taken a harder line than others. Jalili, who is perceived to have the support of Iran’s religious establishment, has turned it into an issue of nationalistic pride, equating sanctions with an existential attack on Iran’s Islamic identity. His defiance has sparked a fervent following among conservatives. “No compromise, no submission, only Jalili,” is the preferred slogan of his supporters.

The perception among voters is that moderate candidate Rouhani, who led the first round of negotiations after Iran’s nuclear program was disclosed in 2003, might be more of a soft touch. As part of the negotiations, Rouhani agreed to temporarily suspend enrichment, relieving Iran from harsh sanctions while also forcing the world to accept that Iran was a permanent member of the nuclear power club. At the time,Rouhani’s moves to suspend enrichment were supported by the leadership, but in the fervid atmosphere of a campaign in which candidates have few measurable differences, that brief suspension has been used against him by his detractors, proof, they say, that he will once again crumble in the face of sanctions.

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Rouhani supporters believe that by taking a more conciliatory tone in international negotiations he might be able to keep the enrichment program going, while still lifting sanctions. But for many in Qom, where nationalism is tied up most acutely with Islam, even parlaying with the West is tantamount to selling out the Islamic Revolution. “The fear of nuclear weapons is just a pretext,” says Mehdi Saadat, who runs a video-game café in Qom. “We know the reality. The West is against us, and they have been against us since the revolution.”

While the West may see sanctions as punishment for Iranian intransigence on the nuclear issue, many Iranians see them in the context of a push for regime change, says a Western diplomat in Tehran. So far, this most recent round of sanctions has achieved little more than a crippled economy, something that hurts the average citizen far more than the leadership. “What are we really saying when we talk about successful sanctions?” questions the diplomat, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic. “The Iranians have made it clear that they will not give up their nuclear program. So if the idea is to make the economy go down so far that the people take to the streets, then the goal is to overthrow the government.” Not that he, or Iranians for that matter, believe such a scenario would ever take place. “People will never try to overthrow the government, no matter how strong sanctions become,” says 21-year-old journalist Kian Rezaaei. Iranians may want change, but few are willing to risk the repercussions of an uprising like the one that followed the elections of 2009, when a popular opposition candidate lost to incumbent Ahmadinejad. Millions took to the streets to protest what they saw as widespread fraud. The crackdown was brutal, resulting in scores of deaths, mass imprisonment and beatings. “No one will face down the government,” says 56-year-old shopkeeper Mitra Javanpoor. “We have seen what happens. We are too afraid.”

(PHOTOS: Iranians Cast Vote in an Uneasy Election)

If anything, resentment over sanctions has driven voters toward the conservative camps. Jalili has taken a “bring it on” stance, calling for a “resistance economy” in which Iran turns its back on the West and proves to the world that it can stand on its own. It has proved a popular theme. “The more the West pushes us, the stronger we become,” says Hamid Esmail, a 30-year-old shopkeeper taking a break at one of Qom’s shisha cafés. “Maybe the sanctions have slowed our progress. But you will see, we will become more powerful and more self-reliant.”

That’s a common refrain in Qom, where voters who spoke to TIME may hesitate between conservative candidates but are adamant that Rouhani is not an option. If the same is true throughout the country (there is no accurate polling in Iran), it could paradoxically work in Rouhani’s favor by splitting the conservative vote. If no candidate wins a majority, the election will go to a runoff a week later. A one-on-one competition between Rouhani and a conservative — most likely Jalili — will make the debate over sanctions even more pitched. And Moussavi, the counseling cleric in Khomeini’s old house, will face a new round of election questions.

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