Iranians in NYC Vote to Stop Hardline Candidate Back Home

Farah Izadi, 46, a Canadian-Iranian industrial engineer, outside the entrance door of the Queens polling site. (Photo by Sharif Hassan for Voices of NY)

Over two dozen Iranians lined up in a room about 100 foot square on the second floor of One UN Plaza in midtown Manhattan on Friday to vote in a presidential election being held thousands of miles away.

Four candidates were running, though only two were seen as serious contenders: Iran’s moderate current president, Hassan Rouhani, and a hardline cleric, Ebrahim Raisi.

Raisi lost; in Iran, he only won 38 percent of the votes, to Rouhani’s 57 percent. But in New York his showing may have been far worse. Data from the Iranian government indicates that about 27,000 votes were cast for Rouhani in the 55 polling stations across the entire U.S., while only about 1,000 were cast for Raisi.

More than a dozen Iranians interviewed at two polling stations in Manhattan and Queens said they voted to “stop” Raisi from becoming the next president. Some of them said they favored Rouhani for his relatively liberal agenda within a conservative system, openness to the West, and rejection of isolation and extremism. Others said electing the conservative Raisi would dramatically increase the “possibility of a war” with the United States under President Donald J. Trump.

“Raisi has a very radical view; he is against negotiations,” said Solmaz Sharif, 34, in the hallway of the polling place in Manhattan. “Rouhani is pro-peace.”

About 5,000 ballots were supplied for New York and New Jersey. More than 3,000 were used.

The scene at the Manhattan site resembled a Persian party. Voters sipped coffee and tea, served at a table in the corner, and chatted in Farsi, the language spoken in Iran, while waiting their turn. Inside the room, poll workers were on the move like restaurant workers during the lunch rush.

“Can I take a photo in the room?” asked a voter cautiously. “It is prohibited,” replied a hijab-clad election staffer. “But no problem,” she said, smiling. “You can take a photo.”

Iranians hail Rouhani for sealing the 2015 nuclear deal. In it, the U.S. and the European Union agreed to lift sanctions, in exchange for Iran stopping its nuclear program, which the West suspected was aimed at producing a nuclear bomb. A win by Raisi could have ended the deal and once again plunged Iran into economic isolation.

Unlike Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, Iran is a freer country. The president and parliament are elected democratically, one of Rouhani’s vice presidents is a woman, women are allowed to run for office and work. But Iran still remains a human rights violator state. The country retains capital punishment; women have to wear headscarves outside the home, and the internet and social media are widely censored. [And following the election, President Trump, on a visit to Israel, criticized Iran for supporting terrorism and the Syrian regime.]

Still, Iranians in New York said Rouhani was the only hope to move Iran toward gradual social freedoms and more open relations with the West.

Alireza Eatemadpour, 34, an American-Iranian business lawyer, dropping his vote in a ballot box at the Manhattan polling site. (Photo by Sharif Hassan for Voices of NY)

“A vote for Rouhani is a vote for further democracy,” said Leyli Shirazi, 38, a human rights defender in New York working for Palestinian rights. A democratic movement has taken shape in Iran, which “we have to support” from abroad, she added.

The president is the second most powerful figure in Iran’s government. The supreme leader, currently a conservative cleric, Ali Khamenei, is the most powerful, with the final say on all state matters, including drawing red lines on foreign relations and social freedoms.

Voters in New York had to show Iranian passports or ID cards to prove they were from Iran. They also had to dip a finger into indelible ink to prevent double-voting.

Since Trump’s January travel ban that targeted travelers from Iran alongside five other Muslim-majority countries, Iranians living in the West have feared they might face more restrictions if a hardline president won the election.

“A conservative in power in Iran makes life difficult for us in the West,” said Farah Izadi, 46, a Canadian-Iranian who voted at 55-11 Queens Blvd.

Izadi was one of the few who showed up in the morning at the Queens polling station, where the poll workers looked at their smartphones while waiting for voters.

A 56-year-old woman took a scarf out of her bag before entering to cover her hair, fearing she might be stopped from voting if she did not comply with the Islamic dress code. Outside, a couple shot a photo of their inked fingers.

After voting, Sharif spent the afternoon following election news in her apartment. When she woke up the next morning, Rouhani had been proclaimed the winner.

“It is awesome,” she said. “I am happy he won.”

Sharif Hassan is a member of the 2017 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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