Wall Street Journal: A Dark Horse Candidate in Tehran

By SOHRAB AHMARI
It’s presidential election season in Iran, but as this newspaper has reported there is little public enthusiasm in the Islamic Republic for the June 14 vote. That’s not surprising given that most of the figures looking to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fall in the usual spectrum between the truly tyrannical—the members of the “principlist” faction—and the relatively less tyrannical—also known as the “reformists.”
But one candidate is bucking this trend and promises to be the must-watch maverick in the race. Zahra, a 52-year-old Muslim woman from Tehran, is running on a human-rights platform that emphasizes “the dignity of every life.” Zahra says she’s running for president to hold accountable the clerical regime for its crimes.
OK, so Zahra isn’t a real candidate. Iran’s unelected Guardian Council bars anyone who isn’t a male Shiite with irreproachable “revolutionary” credentials from running for president, so even if she were a real person, she wouldn’t stand a chance against the mullahs.
Zahra is the brainchild of Amir Soltani, an Iranian-American writer based in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of “Zahra’s Paradise,” a 2011 graphic novel about a mother’s search for her missing son during the uprising and crackdown that followed Iran’s last presidential election in 2009.
Mr. Soltani says the character was inspired by a YouTube video he saw of a real-life Iranian mother about to bury her son, a pro-democracy student who died under suspicious circumstances while detained by security forces in 2009. “On her face you could see the distillation of the experience of the Iranian people over the past three decades,” Mr. Soltani tells me. “Sorrow, rage, confusion but also courage.”
He was especially struck by that last attribute: the resilience of the Iranian spirit in the face of theocratic dictatorship. As the Islamic Republic prepares for another round of voting, Mr. Soltani felt compelled to put Zahra forward “as a protest candidate to highlight the fact that Iran’s elections are a sham,” he says.
True, Zahra can’t be registered officially as a candidate, but thanks to the Internet, Iranians inside and outside the country can meet her virtually at www.vote4zahra.org and compare her plank with those offered by the regime-sanctioned candidates. The website isn’t blocked in Iran—yet—and chronicles, graphic-novel style, Zahra’s campaign. (“I’d knock off Khamenei’s turban!” Zahra’s zany best friend tells her in one panel).
“Zahra’s plank grows out of the loss of her son,” Mr. Soltani explains. “She’s calling for the abolishment of the death penalty, for the release of all political prisoners, including the two opposition candidates from the 2009 election, who are still under house arrest. She’s also running as a female candidate, so she wants full equality for women.” Zahra’s candidacy, Mr. Soltani adds, poses a basic question to regime officials: “How did the crane used for hanging come to be the symbol of Iran?”
Against the background of the regime’s horrors, Zahra offers a vision of “hope and love,” Mr. Soltani says. But her message has a harder edge, too. “A democratic Iran can’t have someone like the Ayatollah Khamenei at the top. As long as he’s at the helm, there is no exit.”
Mr. Soltani isn’t bothered by the whole “fake candidate” charge, either. “She’s fictional, fine,” he says. “But so is the Islamic Republic. So is the position of the ‘supreme leader.’ So are Ahmadinejad’s votes in the last election. So why not counter fiction with fiction?”
Mr. Ahmari is an assistant books editor at the Journal.
A version of this article appeared May 10, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: A Dark Horse Candidate in Tehran.