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Iranians think about tomorrow, pay little attention to NAM summit

Speaking to Ahram Online in Tehran on the eve of the NAM summit, Iranians expressed support Iran's nuclear programme, regardless of their preferred candidate for next year's presidential elections

Dina Ezzat, Tehran, Thursday 30 Aug 2012
Iranian People
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With loosely hanging scarves that barely hide their fashionably coloured and styled hair, and with intense make-up, a group of Iranian women in their early 30s sit in the "Women Only" section at the back of a public bus, cut through one of the Middle East's longest roads: Valiasr.

As the bus passed by one of the large posters celebrating Tehran hosting the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit Thursday and Friday, one of the women made a remark to the laugher of her companions.

"She was saying that the people of Tehran should thank all the (NAM) delegates because the government decided to close down everything for five days, freeing the city of its otherwise horrible traffic jams," said our interpreter.

The decision of the Iranian government left few exceptions: food stores are allowed a limited working schedule per day, along with pharmacies and doctors' clinics.

The city looks practically empty as many Tehran residents use the occasion to escape the heat of the capital, going north. Others are simply staying at home.

Will Iranians keep abreast of events during these days off? "Certainly not the summit news. It is not very interesting or very important," said Jawwad, an attendant at a juice bar in one of Tehran's hotels. For Jawwad, the NAM summit will do nothing for Iran. "It will not end the sanctions," or allow for the country to open up. "So why bother?" he asked.

What Iranians talk about in cafes, on buses and in shared taxis is the future of the country. Next year in July Iranians will vote in presidential elections. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, currently ruling for a second term, cannot run.

For some Iranians who spoke to Ahram Online in Tehran, this is good news. For them, Ahmadinejad is one of the hardest among hardliners. "We don’t have good politicians and bad politicians who can run for the presidency; we have bad and less bad," said Nissal, sipping grape juice while watching her four-year-old daughter playing.

Nissal hopes that by the time her daughter is 12, she would not have to wear Islamic outfits. "It is suffocating and it does not mean anything. If some people believe that this way of dressing protects them from men then they could keep it, but it should not be enforced," she argued.

Nissal was only a few years old when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran and as a teenager she had to wear strict Islamic garb and worry about Iran's wars with Iraq. She laments that for so many years of her life she felt she was living in "convent or a prison."

During the late 1990s, this housewife of the economically better-off Iranians thought that things were getting better. "With President (Mohamed) Khatami (a reformist) we had hopes, but he did not manage to face up to the challenges of the hardliners," she said.

Khatami was the fifth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He took office in August 1997 and stayed until 2005. His defeat was seen as a loss by many Iranians who had hoped that the Khatami presidency would bring more openness to their lifestyles.

Today, Iranians are not sure whether former presidential runner, reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi will run next year and whether or not he, or any other reformist, could bring the changes that pro-reform Iranians hope for, not just in economy and politics, but also in lifestyle.

"It is true that the sanctions are not cutting very hard at the heart of our economy; we are getting by. But the sanctions and the whole battle with Iran over its nuclear programme is making Iranian citizens unwanted visitors in so many countries. It is also limiting the profile of the people who come to Iran, and the kind of jobs one can find," said Talib, a medical doctor.

Speaking from the comfort of a Western style café in Tehran, Talib sipped his Earl Grey tea and argued that the problem for Iranians is not just personal liberties, including the right of women to wear what they want and act freely, free from the surveillance of the state. For Talib, as for other young Iranians who spoke to Ahram Online, there are always ways to bend tiresome rules that restrict personal freedoms. But the international sanctions, imposed by the US and the Western world, are leaving Iran greatly isolated.  

The Iranian government insists that its nuclear programme, which has been proven compatible with its obligations towards the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), is designed only for peaceful uses. It has declined over and again to stop the enrichment of uranium and has said that this enrichment is not in violation of the NPT.

This week, the Iranian government is organising a visit for interested heads of delegations attending the NAM summit to one of its key nuclear power plants. The announcement was made by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as UN Secreary-General Ban Ki-Moon — who arrived to Tehran despite protest by the US and Israel, with Tel Avis still warning of a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities — asked his Iranian interlocutors to do all they could to prove that Iran's nuclear programme is peaceful.

Most of Iranians who spoke to Ahram Online in Tehran insisted that the country's nuclear programme is a centrepoint of national pride. Even those who were willing to openly attack the president on accusations ranging from autocracy to women-hating were supportive of Ahmadinejad's determination to keep the nuclear programme going.

According to these Iranians, the next president, whether a hardliner or a reformist, should also stick to Iran's nuclear programme. However, they added that he should be able to find a political deal by which the age of sanctions and fears of war come to an end.

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