Tehran, It Is a Changin’
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
Pop music blaring from car stereos, sizzling street food and stylishly dressed women and men strutting about town . . . I could have been in New York. But in fact, I was roaming the neighborhoods of Tehran set against the snowcapped backdrop of the Elburz Mountains. As Iran votes for its next president on Friday, those streets will be buzzing with questions over its future. The world will be watching as well. To some, Iran poses a dangerous threat. To others, it’s a stabilizing regional force. In truth, it’s much more complex than either of those. Today’s Daily Dose introduces you to Iran’s likely next president and the individuals who could shape the Islamic Republic’s destiny. You will learn how sanctions on Tehran impact your fine dining choices, check out the country’s unlikely new friends and listen to the Madonna of the Middle East. One of the world’s oldest civilizations is at a crossroads, and its choices will impact you.
faces to follow
Ebrahim Raisi: The 61-year-old Supreme Court chief justice is the clear front-runner to win the presidency, with the support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the disqualification of key moderate rivals by a constitutional watchdog. Yet experts believe a win for the religious conservative could set the stage for a less ideologically driven Iranian leadership — including a willingness to drop some of the country’s reflexive anti-Americanism. That change might be needed if Iran is to drag itself out of an economic crisis. But the presidency would only be a stepping stone: Raisi is widely seen as a potential successor to Khamenei as Iran’s Supreme Leader. The world could be dealing with him for several years.
Faezah Hashemi: One of Iran’s boldest feminists, the former legislator is the daughter of ex-President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, an icon of reformist politics in the country. Jailed in 2012 for criticizing the Iranian regime, she emerged from incarceration more convinced than ever of the need for political change. “I have no fear anymore,” she once told me. An immensely popular figure among Iranian liberals, Hashemi recently held a Clubhouse session with 10,000 participants. In April, she announced plans to boycott the coming vote, even though her brother Mohsen (the current mayor of Tehran) was at that point expected to be a candidate.
Taraneh Alidoosti: In the 2016 film The Salesman, this 37-year-old played the lead character who was attacked in her home. The character’s husband then works to find the accused salesman. If you haven’t seen the film, please do so. Alidoosti, described as Iran’s Natalie Portman, is one of the country’s most popular actresses and, like Hashemi, she’s not afraid to speak out. In 2017, after The Salesman had been nominated for an Academy Award, she boycotted the ceremony in protest against Donald Trump’s travel ban, and last year she received a five-month suspended jail term for criticizing Iranian law enforcement officials who had attacked a woman for not wearing a headscarf.
Mohammad Sharifi: Coached in his early years by the legendary former Iranian striker Ali Daei, Sharifi is one of Asian soccer’s most promising young talents. Supremely skilled, he also has rare vision on the field. Which is why at age 21, he is already being touted as the future captain of the national team. He currently plays in Iran, but European clubs have had their eyes on him since he was a teen. Wherever he goes, he’s going to score.
Negar Reiskarimian: If your spotty Wi-Fi network has frustrated you this past year spent working from home, you should be cheering for Reiskarimian. The young Iranian — included by Forbes in 2018 among the world’s 30 top scientists under the age of 30 — has developed path-breaking technology that could double the wireless capabilities of chips that run all our electronic devices. Her journey from Tehran to Columbia University and now MIT, where she is teaching and conducting research, is a testament to what global cooperation can achieve if we collaborate with rather than sanction one another.
Nazanin Daneshvar: The 37-year-old is the founder of Iran’s version of Groupon. Like the U.S.-based online marketplace, Daneshvar’s firm, Takhfifan — which means “discount” in Persian — connects subscribers with merchants, offering hard-to-resist rebates. A rare female entrepreneur at the top of Iran’s tech economy, Danesvar needed to bring her father along for meetings in Takhfifan’s early days because other CEOs wouldn’t believe she was a founder. Today she’s running the country’s largest group-buying company — and serving as an inspiration for a generation of young female innovators.
Esmail Qaani: After serving for years as a deputy to Qassem Soleimani, Qaani took over as chief of Iran’s elite military strike unit, the Quds Force, following his boss’s assassination in an American drone strike in January 2020. But while Qaani lacks the charisma that made Soleimani a folk hero, he has the resources at his command to drive Iran’s influence across the Middle East, through direct warfare and proxy groups. Qaani and Suleimani first met during the Iran-Iraq War as young soldiers. “We are all war kids,” Qaani has said. In recent years, he has been in charge of Iran’s operations to its east, including in Afghanistan. With the U.S. withdrawing troops from that war-torn nation, Qaani’s experience will prove even more vital for Iran.
Nuclear Deal’s (Almost) a Done Deal: In the past, Raisi has criticized the nuclear deal. But if elected president, he is expected to swiftly turn 180 degrees and work with America and other global powers to restore the pact that former U.S. President Donald Trump exited. Iran’s elite knows that the deal is vital for the country to escape crippling economic sanctions that have shrunk the country’s GDP. The agreement — which Iran and other countries hope to revive within weeks — has the blessings of Ayatollah Khamenei, the power behind Raisi’s candidacy and the ultimate authority over key strategic matters in Iran. So the likely new president wouldn’t dare to oppose it once in office. “The outcome of the election would have very little impact on the future of the nuclear deal,” Alex Vatanka, senior fellow and director of the Iran Program at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, tells OZY.
Music to Young Ears? Will Tehran’s new leadership move to a fresh beat? Iranian conservatives know they aren’t popular with the country’s youth, especially those from urban, middle-class backgrounds. That matters: Over 60% of Iran’s population is under the age of 30. Which is why Raisi tried something dramatic four years ago when he first ran — unsuccessfully — for the presidency. He publicly met with and received the endorsement of popular but controversial rapper Amir Tataloo. That association with the tattoo-covered Tataloo shocked some conservative voters. Will Raisi again try to appeal to pop culture or will he lean in to his core, religious constituency? The answer could determine the extent of cultural freedoms in Iran once he takes office.
Caviar, Carpets and Pistachios: But the coming change in Iran — and with Iran — will impact all of our lives. Since the first wave of U.S. sanctions against Iran four decades ago, the country’s best-in-class caviar, Persian carpets and pistachios have repeatedly fallen hostage to global tensions. Each time there’s a thaw in relations with the West, sanctions on these Iranian specialties are lifted, and Americans and the world hungrily import them. When sanctions are reimposed, rugs, nuts and caviar get hit. If trade restrictions are relaxed once again, we might be able to relish Iran’s most delectable commodities.
Oil Price Dip?: Easing sanctions will also have a direct impact on Iran’s economy, as one of the world’s leading oil producers will once again be able to join the energy market. Tehran is likely to offer discounts to try and win back old customers. That flood of Iranian oil should cause global crude prices to dip, in turn making your cross-country road trip that much cheaper.
Saudi Softening: The nuclear deal isn’t Iran’s only major diplomatic move. For decades, Tehran and Riyadh have battled for regional supremacy, each trying to extend its arc of influence in the Middle East using money, military muscle and mullahs. Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have fought proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and beyond. Yet a dramatic shift is afoot. Since April, Saudi Arabia and Iran have held talks — first in a clandestine manner and then publicly. They’ve both spoken of a desire to improve ties. Don’t expect the rivals to suddenly embrace, but “these are very significant talks,” says Vatanka. “They are an indication that in both nations, there’s recognition that the bad blood of the past few years can’t continue indefinitely.”
Taliban Too: It’s one thing to seek better ties with Saudi Arabia — but quite another to team up with the Taliban, a force that a few years ago was thirsting for the blood of your nationals. Yet nearly 23 years after the extremist Sunni group killed nine Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Tehran now has firm ties with the group. Through the 1990s, Iran — and India — had backed the Northern Alliance of the charismatic Ahmed Shah Massoud as a bulwark against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the emergence of the Islamic State, even more rabidly anti-Iranian than the Taliban, has forced Tehran’s rethink. Now Iran counts on the Taliban to keep the Islamic State in check in their border regions. Though the prospect of the Taliban returning to power in Kabul isn’t thrilling for Tehran, it now has a regular channel of communication with the group it once nearly went to war with.
Beijing Bet: If the U.S. does lift sanctions on Iran, expect a flood of major economies — from India and Japan to France and Germany — to queue up seeking access to the vast market of 83 million people. But Iran has learned its lessons and knows that these “friends,” while helpful when times are good, will abide by American sanctions if they’re imposed again, as happened under Trump. Which is why it is doubling down on its bonhomie with Beijing, aware that China has the clout to defy U.S. sanctions and continue buying Iranian oil. In March, Tehran and Beijing inked a 25-year-long pact, under which China promised $400 billion in investments spanning technology and military aid.
Israel Threat: Still, Iran’s hopes for a post-sanctions recovery will hinge on Israel’s response to the region’s changing dynamics. David Barnea, the incoming chief of Israel’s spy agency, the Mossad, has already made clear that the country will continue to plot assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and hits on Tehran’s atomic facilities. And Israel’s new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, has made clear he intends to continue with the aggressive strategies of his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, whose 12-year stint as the country’s leader ended over the weekend. If the Mossad delivers on Barnea’s threats, Iran will be tempted to react — setting up the potential for an escalatory spiral that some experts fear could inevitably lead to a war.
Chelo Kebab: I’ve eaten this Iranian delicacy both on the streets of Tehran and at the presidential palace, when I was covering diplomatic talks there in 2016 between Iran, Afghanistan and India. Not surprisingly, I found the street version the tastier of the two. But grab some wherever you can find the dish made from tender lamb kebabs on a bed of saffron-scented rice, with a poached egg and tomato on the side. Pro tip: Allow for a post-meal nap.
Zafran: It’s the Persian word for saffron, and what you should look for in the bustling, beautiful bazaars of Tehran, Mashhad and the breathtakingly pretty cities of Shiraz and Isfahan. It’s also the world’s most expensive spice, so why not buy it directly from the country that supplies 90% of our saffron? No matter how busy I am, I make a point when visiting Iran to take time for saffron shopping. Add it to pilaf, biryani, puddings and kheer . . . and watch its color and aroma delight your guests even before they’ve taken a bite.
‘A Separation’: There are few more thrilling film industries than Iran’s, with a seemingly endless number of classics that invariably win global awards. Yet even in that bounty of riches, A Separation stands out. The 2011 Oscar-winning story of an unhappy middle-class couple who are going through a separation and its impact on their relationship with their daughter is so good that Kramer vs. Kramer pales in comparison.
Iran’s Madonna: That’s one way of describing Googoosh. But the 71-year-old superstar singer and actor has done what Madonna never had to. One of Iran’s most popular cultural icons in the 1970s, she stayed in the country after the Islamic Revolution, silencing her singular vocal cords. Then, in 2000, she left and has rediscovered a global following, performing before packed audiences. Yet on Tehran’s sidewalks, you’ll still hear her songs blaring from phones that double as jukeboxes as neighbors chat in the evening. As far as they’re concerned, Googoosh is still with them. Listen and you’ll see why.
- Charu Sudan Kasturi, OZY Author Contact Charu Sudan Kasturi