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Why Iran’s absentee voters will probably remain absent during Friday’s election

Why Iran’s absentee voters will probably remain absent during Friday’s election

Update: Though the Interests Section said in an email that a voting booth would be available at the UN mission, voting in New York will actually being take place at the Imam Ali Mosque (Razi School) in Woodside, Queens. For an updated list of voting locations, see this map.

On Friday, Iranians will take to the polls to choose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s successor. For some, the election was over before it began when, last month, the Islamic Guardian Council excluded the participation of the two candidates who held the most possibility for change — Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Brian Murphey, reporting for the AP, paints an elucidating juxtaposition between the vibrant political scene surrounding 2009’s Green Movement when " four years ago, girls on rollerblades sped around [Tehran’s Melhat] park delivering fliers for the reform camp’s candidate-hero Mir Hossein Mousavi" and the current state of affairs where "there are just a few subdued election placards for candidates considered fully in sync with Iran’s ruling clerics."

But we need not look as far as Tehran to get a feel for how different things are this time around. As Iranians in the country gear up to vote, Iranian voters in the United States are making significantly less noise about casting absentee ballots as compared to 2009.

Four years ago, Iranian Americans took to the polls in record numbers. Energized by the candidacy of Moussavi, 41 polling stations in the United States were staffed by volunteers who encouraged voting as a political gesture against the establishment. The U.S. Department of State even weighed in with a gushing report on Iranians in the United States contributing to the vote. Quoting then State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, the article pronounces that the United States "is ‘always encouraged’ by free and lawful expression."

"I remember a lot of hullabaloo about absentee voting in 2009, and a lot of people — particularly to compare it to years past — did participate in voting in the United States," says Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council. He admits his own father, who had never voted before in his life, even turned up to cast a ballot. "They wanted to get Ahmadinejad out of power. It turns out their voting didn’t matter."

Four years later, the effects of 2009 do seem to be playing out among U.S. absentee voters. According to Iran’s permanent ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee, there will be half the number of polling stations available in the United States. And as of Wednesday, the Iranian Interests Section — which functions in Washington in lieu of a formal embassy — has confirmed the location of two of these: one at their own office in D.C. and another through the U.N. Mission in New York. According to the Interests Section’s website, more places will be made available, though their precise locations are to be determined. Part of the logistical difficulty is that, due to the absence of Iranian diplomats in the United States, volunteers typically staff polling stations. According to Marashi, they may be less inspired to participate in this year’s presidential election.

Iran boasts a unique approach to absentee voting. Rather than having voters mail in ballots, citizens are required to show up at designated polling stations in person with an Iranian Passport and cast their votes — a system that is proving challenging elsewhere as well. In Syria, for example, Iran has taken pains to enable its citizens to vote in the beleaguered country, setting up a station at the embassy as well as two mobile ballot boxes. Meanwhile Canada — which severed diplomatic relations with Tehran last year — has found itself locked in a blame game with the country over its own absentee voters. Tehran accuses Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government of failing to cooperate with Iranian efforts to set up polling stations in Canada, while Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird, charges Iran with dropping the ball on the necessary arrangements, saying such "sidelining of the sizable Iranian diaspora in Canada … makes this upcoming election even more of a sham."

While the United States has not taken any ostensible steps to discourage voting, some Iranian Americans have rejected the election on their own. "I don’t think many Iranians will vote this time because a lot of Iranians are boycotting the election," says Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, Rutgers professor and founder of the American Iranian Council, who made headlines this year with his own quixotic bid for president. He acknowledges that while there are certainly those in the United States who support the religious establishment, they do not make up the majority of the roughly one million Iranians who reside in the United States.

Compared to 2009, Iranians might feel they don’t have a viable candidate. "Over the past four years, the range of political views has systematically shrunk," Marashi says. While Hassan Rowhani — the country’s former nuclear negotiator — has came out strong among liberals after the debates, garnering the support of reformist figures like the disqualified Rasfanjani, he still does not represent the level of departure held by the 2009 opposition. "If you were to compare it to a color scale," Marashi explains, "prior to 2009 it was light gray to pitch black. Now it’s dark gray to pitch black. There’s not a lot of diversity of views around that table. In the bigger scheme of things, who’s the anti-establishment candidate? There really isn’t one." 

But even for those in the United States who may want to vote, the experience of 2009 holds another lesson. Though an admittedly less-than-definitive source, a small glimpse into voter attitudes can be seen in this Reddit thread (because, yes, there’s a Reddit thread for everything) about voting as an Iranian-American. While some users reflect interest in participating in the process for "symbolic" reasons, others voice skepticism as to whether absentee votes are even tallied. As one user advises: "You can vote, but don’t. It’s not like it’s gonna get counted."    

Marya Hannun is a freelance journalist and PhD student in Georgetown’s Islamic Studies program.