Risking 60 Lashes, Iranian Runs for Office So He Can Walk a Dog
TEHRAN — With his campaign posters displayed all across Tehran, Payam Mohebi, the city’s star veterinarian, figures he is either on his way to victory in Friday’s local elections or, possibly, on the way to receive 60 lashes. In Iran these days, it is often hard to predict.
Dr. Mohebi, who is running for one of the 21 seats on Tehran’s City Council, is shown on the posters posing with a stray dog. In most countries, that would hardly turn a head. But in Iran, where the ruling clerics consider dogs impure, taking one for a walk risks the arrest of the owner and the seizure, and possible extermination, of the animal.
The doctor says he knows about all that, but is willing to take the risk. “I’m doing this so that one seat in the City Council will be for the animals,” he said. “They live with us, we love them, they have rights too.”
The campaign for the Tehran City Council this year is proving to be a spectacle, one that provides an unusual perspective on Iranian society. More than 8,000 candidates have signed up to run for the 21 seats, and unlike in national elections, they have not been vetted by the hard-line Guardian Council, which traditionally favors colorless, conservative candidates.
Instead, they have been vetted by a Parliament where moderates and reformists achieved a slim majority in 2015 elections, which has opened the floodgates for thousands of candidates in the vote on Friday: lawyers, religious minorities, women’s rights activists, bank managers and sports figures, among others.
The council wields considerable influence. It elects the mayor to a four-year term and oversees municipal budgets. Council members have the right to put social, economic and other issues on the agenda and develop plans to address them. They also get to name streets, in a city where hard-liners have sought to name every street after a martyr or revolutionary figure.
Dr. Mohebi has spent most of his life fighting for animal rights — or to be more precise, fighting for the right of people to have pets in their houses. In 2002, he started Tehran’s first pet hospital at a time when few people there had dogs and cats. Now, he is planning to open a 10-story clinic in West Tehran that will be one of the largest in the Middle East.
“People said I was crazy, but I saw change coming,” he said in an interview in his clinic, as clerks in the other room sold brushes to a woman who had walked in with a schnauzer and an Afghan hound was being soaped up in a special tub. “Iranians wanted pets.”
Tehran has changed over the past 15 years, Dr. Mohebi said. There is more money, more freedom and more attention to social rights, he said. But that did not stop Parliament three years ago, when it was still dominated by hard-liners, from passing a law that increased the fines for dog owners to the equivalent of $2,500, as well as killing the animal and 60 lashes for the owner.
“We have one million pets in this city — what are they thinking?” Dr. Mohebi said. “There is a massive gap between our politicians and us.”
If he is elected, Dr. Mohebi said, there will be no more killings. “We should have special parks for dogs instead, like we have special women-only parks for women who want to go running without their Islamic scarves,” he said.
On Telegram, a social media service, thousands of people follow his channel, Supporters of Dr. Mohebi. Some of his followers wrote that they wished him success. “I love Payam, because when he gets elected I can walk safely with my dog,” one supporter, Behnaz Mehdikhani, wrote. Another posted a cartoon of a cat waking up his sleeping owner. “Are you asleep?” a text balloon read. “Wake up and vote for us #DrMohebi.”
Over the years, the council has seen fights between the two dominant political factions — reformists and moderates on one side, hard-liners on the other — and corruption by some of its members, who were making millions by using their influence to sell building permits. As a result, Tehran looks like a concrete jungle where high-rises with no provisions for parking spaces soar over small alleyways.
“What is missing are city planners,” said Taraneh Yalda, a prominent architect and a candidate who is expected to garner broad support in the elections. Ms. Yalda, who was educated in Italy and France, said the city was suffering from all the towers being built without regard for aesthetics.
“It became a habit for everybody who inherits their grandmother’s house to sell it to someone who knocks it down and replaces it with something ugly,” she said. “Not only the mayor is to blame. We all are.”
Ms. Yalda had never considered venturing into politics until last March, when a friend of her son urged her to sign up for the council elections. “We opened a Telegram channel,” she said. “After a few days I had 2,500 followers. I was like, ‘OMG, I totally have to do this,’” she said in English.
What Tehran needs is more social spaces, Ms. Yalda said. “Tehran is beautiful, not for its buildings, but for its people.”
For some, signing up as a council candidate is the start of a more ambitious foray into politics. Housang Shahbazi, the manager of Tehran’s sprawling Ekbatan housing complex, is better known as Iran’s “hero pilot” for safely landing an aging Boeing 727 after the landing gear in the nose jammed in 2012.
Running for the City Council was the start of a new way of thinking, he said. Social media changed everything. “If I had been a candidate four years ago, how would I spread my message?” he said.
“Nowadays, people know everything. Nothing can be censored.”
This time around, Iranians would be electing people like themselves, he said.
“In Iran, our leaders often say that the one real red line we can never cross is our establishment,” Mr. Shahbazi said. “I say the only red line we cannot cross are our people. We matter most.”