Seoul’s Iranian Expatriates React to Disputed Election Aftermath

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Mohsen Payandeh / MATT MEDVED

Mohsen Payandeh stood in the North Gate stairwell glued to his cell phone while the hulking mass of Seoul World Cup Stadium trembled behind him.

He paced the length of the stairs leading down to the subway in search of quiet. But the air was ringing with passing conversations and the practiced sales pitches of street vendors, the stairs too strangled with fans enroute to the Korea Republic-Iran World Cup soccer qualifier to navigate.

He hung up his phone in frustration and leaned against a guardrail while the crowd churned by.

“Are you by any chance Iranian?” I asked.

His smirk said it all. Draped in a voluminous green and red Iranian flag that clung to his shoulders, there was no mistaking his allegiances.

Payandeh, a 25-year-old businessman from Tehran, said he was waiting for his father and brother to join him. He became quite animated when I brought up the disputed presidential election that took place five days prior in his home country.

“It is finished,” Payandeh said. “Finished. There will be no change.”

Payandeh described himself as a supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist ex-prime minister who had contested incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection bid. The June 12 election results gave Ahmadinejad a landslide 63% victory over Mousavi’s 34%, sparking massive protests in the capital’s streets by Iranian citizens who believed the vote was rigged. Payandeh shared their sentiments.

“I think [Ahmadinejad] took it,” Payandeh said. “I really think so. Many of my friends are Mousavi supporters. Now they are angry. Now we are angry.”

Just then, two older men emerged from the crowd and Payandeh waved them over.

“That is my father and brother,” he said, smiling. “They are both named Mohamed.”

Both Mohameds greeted me enthusiastically, but there was no time to talk politics. The crowd’s cheers had swelled to roars and Payandeh was anxious to get inside.

The family took off at a sprint toward the entrance gate whooping and yelling “Allahu Akbar”, the same chant that thousands of Iranian protesters hollered from their rooftops that week into the black uncertainty of the Tehran night.


The bustling streets and claustrophobic alleys of Itaewon belie its position as the heart of Seoul’s foreign community. Itaewon is a cultural patchwork quilt where African and Indian restaurants share the same city block, where kebab stand owners hawk their steaming wares under the neon glow of Russian dance club logos. But it was a rather humdrum looking Starbucks where I was to meet with Shayan Rezaee, an Iranian-American businessman, to discuss the elections.


Shayan Rezaee / MATT MEDVED

Rezaee, 25, had also attended the soccer match, which ended in a 1-1 draw that snuffed out Iran’s hopes of World Cup qualification. But while he acknowledged his disappointment, there were more important issues on Rezaee’s mind.

Five years removed from his last visit to Tehran, Rezaee said he had supported conservative candidate and ex-commander Mohsen Rezai in the elections. Recognizing his candidate was a longshot, however, Rezaee said he preferred Mousavi to Ahmadinejad.

He was therefore “shocked” and disappointed when the election news broke.

“It was night here and my friend from Iran called me and he said ‘we have to wait four more years,’” said Rezaee. “My first reaction was to swear. It was unexpected for me.”

Rezaee said he couldn’t say for sure whether the vote was rigged or not because he was not there but he certainly has his suspicions.

“It’s hard to believe the election results, especially in Mousavi’s hometown,” said Rezaee. “It’s a little unbelievable that Ahmadinejad got more than him there.”

Rezaee also said the swiftness with which Ahmadinejad’s victory was announced seemed suspicious to him.

“The counting took less than 12 hours. How can you do it?” said Rezaee. “They didn’t use computers, it was all paper voting. They have to count by hand. It’s just really hard to believe.”

Although Rezaee supports the protestors in Tehran, he was doubtful that Mousavi’s “Sea of Green” movement was actually benefiting the country, Rezaee said the protests “are not going to help” and does not believe there are enough people to effect real change in Iran.

“People are still worried, they don’t want to give blood,” said Rezaee. “A thousand people died in 1979. If people want real change, they’re going to have to pay in blood.”

Rezaee said Iranians were too comfortable in their current situation to make the necessary sacrifices to overthrow the current regime.

“If I could speak to the Iranian people I would say ‘stop it’ said Rezaee. “It’s not the time for change. If you want to [change the system], ok let’s do it, I will come out there and join you. But it’s just not enough. People are too happy with their lives.”

Rezaee also said he believed the vandalism and violence was counterproductive and hurting the country’s infrastructure.

“If you are destroying public property, what is that accomplishing?” said Rezaae. “Tehran is losing one bus, a bus which can carry 1,000 people per day to work.”

Rezaee said he “totally disagreed” with the shooting of protestors in Tehran and described the crackdown on Internet and cellular phone communication as “very tactical.”

“No regime wants to be taken down,” he said, gulping down the last of his coffee. We disposed of our cups and headed for the door. Rezaee sighed.

“If they don’t think they can change the situation then they need to get their hands back on their jobs,” said Rezaee. “Help Iran. Wait four years. Don’t do it for Ahmadinejad. Do it for Iran. Do it for yourselves.”

After coffee, Rezaee led me through a winding back alley to a small Persian restaurant. Gilded plates and Persian calligraphy line the walls, interspersed with framed photographs of Tehran. As we sat down in crimson chairs, a tall dark-eyed waiter took a cleaver to a steaming leg of lamb and nodded to Rezaee. I ordered a kebab.

The waiter went outside to chat with a few customers before reemerging with my kebab. He refused to give his name but said he was 32 years old and originally from Isfahan, motioning to a framed picture of Iran’s second most populous city.

“George W. Bush was the best president America ever had,” he announced after I told him my nationality. “He was the only person who was brave enough to stop Saddam [Hussein].”

He said he had not been back to Iran since paying $6,000 for a fake visa six and a half years ago to get into Korea with the assistance of friends. He said he had “no idea what is going on” with regards to the election.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Iranian guys you see around here don’t even have high school degrees,” he said with a grin, pointing outside to the Itaewon streets. “Life in Korea is pretty hard. They’ll say they want the government to change but really, they have no idea.”



Pedram T. / MELISSA K.

Rezaee introduced me to his friend Pedram T., a 30-year-old student at Seoul Christian University, who had also been at the soccer match.

While the Iranian fan section erupted around him with each shot and block, a green-clad Pedram and a fellow Iranian student had hoisted placards reading “Where is my vote?”, one of the rallying cries of Mousavi’s movement.

Pedram, who is originally from Tehran and came to Seoul in 2005, said he was “disappointed” with the election results.

“Half of my mind was expecting Mousavi to win,” Pedram said. “I was getting hope seeing those who had never voted in their whole lives getting in lines to support this guy. But in the history of Iran we’ve never had a president who comes for just four years and goes away. So part of my mind was like oh maybe Ahmadinejad will win.”

Pedram said the situation in Iran had settled into a behind the scenes “diplomatic fight” between politicians. When asked about former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has backed Mousavi and whose position as the Chairman of the Assembly of Experts could give him the power to pursue a dismissal of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Pedram spoke in a hushed tone.

“People think he has so much power. They think he can do whatever he wants,” said Pedram. “The Supreme Leader is the top one but many people believe Rafsanjani has the most power in his hands, under the table. There is a rumor they want to put Khamenei out of the leadership. But you never know, this is politics.”

Pedram has spread footage of pro-government Basij militias and riot police using violence against protestors using websites like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube because he believes the public should know what is going on.

“These people are not animals and they’re beating them,” said Pedram. “It’s not about the vote anymore, it’s war.”

Tabrisy has also been in close contact with his family in Tehran, having called his mother the night before we spoke.

“The last few days everything went down, we don’t see anything on the news,” said Pedram. “My mom said last night actually the city is more peaceful now but in the main square there are still Basij.”

Pedram said he had booked a flight back to Tehran for July 25th but his family persuaded him to cancel it, knowing he would not be able to “just stay home.”

“In the last two weeks my life has changed,” said Pedram. “I’ve been crying over seeing people beaten to death. If I were there, I’d be shot now, I’d be dead. I’d be outside protesting, helping people. That’s why my parents didn’t want me to go back.”

Pedram was selected to serve as an election officer at Seoul’s Iranian embassy on election day. After the news of the results broke, Pedram observed a protest outside the embassy where other Iranian expatriates had gathered. He tried to record a video of the scene, but the protesters told him to leave, believing that he worked for the embassy.

“The community thinks I work for the embassy or I am a member of the system,” said Pedram. “But how could I be a member of the system and have the green sign which said ‘Where is my vote?’ in my hand at the game?”

He said many expatriates were worried about getting involved because many, like the waiter in Itaewon, are not in the country on legitimate visas.

“Unfortunately most of the population here are workers. Some of them have visas some don’t,” said Pedram. “Most of the people here prefer to keep to their own business rather than get involved. A lot don’t even go out because they don’t want to be seen.”

Pedram said it has been difficult for him to follow the news of the election aftermath from abroad as he feels guilty for not being a part of the protests.

“This feels the worst,” said Pedram. “I felt left out. But it’s not this way for a lot of [Iranian expatriates]. On Facebook everyone is saying they need to do something. Why am I the only one who is spreading the news? Are you not the same? Are you not Iranian? I just don’t understand.”

~ by Matt Medved on July 14, 2009.

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