For the past four years, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has grated the West with his hatred for Israel, his Holocaust minimization, and his persistent nuclear ambitions. Yet, while he ran in 2005 as a populist, a regular guy who would work for the people, the people of Iran may be disenchanted with him. Iranian elections on June 12th could give the leadership of Iran a new face and perhaps a new voice to the world.
Supporters of both leading hardliner President Ahmadinejad and leading reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi rallied on Monday to promote their favorite presidential candidates. The two groups were marked by colors – Ahmadinejad's supporters wore the colors of the Iranian flag as they gathered 100,000 strong at The Grand Mosque in Tehran. Mousavi's supporters wore green, the color of Mousavi's campaign.
Mousavi's supporters are enthused, to put it mildly. While they were prevented by the government from gathering at the huge Azadi Stadium, reform-minded individuals still flooded by the thousands onto Vali-e Asr Avenue, the 15-mile long major thoroughfare that runs through Tehran. And they did not just gather. Green-clad supporters made a human chain that they claimed stretched from the north end to the south end of the major road.
"Thanks to Internet and text messages, we can rally big crowds in a very short time," noted student organizer Mohsen Ghadiri, 19, who wore a green shirt with Mousavi's portrait.
Mousavi has complained that the state television in Iran supports Ahmadinejad. The Internet has therefore become a major medium for reform candidates like Mousavi to get their messages out to the people. Ahmadinejad's political advisor Javad Shamaqdari accused Mousavi's followers of being a little too digital, saying, "Even though it is bad for their mental health, Mousavi's supporters spend hours on the Internet." In other words, Iranians have another source of information than simply what the state wants them to hear.
Iran has felt the economic pinch as much as the rest of the world, and Mousavi is considered by many to be the right man to turn things around. He was Prime Minister of Iran (the last to hold that extinct post) during the war with Iraq, and was successful in keeping limited supplies well-rationed so that people had their basic needs met. He helped the economy back in the 1980s when Iran was in a difficult time, and many believe he can help Iran again.
Mousavi has also impressed many of Iran's moderates by having his wife campaign with him. She holds hands with him at campaign rallies and she even gives speeches. While she wears traditional clothing in public, Mousavi's willingness to campaign with his wife demonstrates a Western approach that pleases the young and urban in Iran.
It isn't the president who truly controls Iran, however. Unless a leader rises up who is willing to move Iran’s supreme leader on major issues, things won't really change that much in Persia. Ultimately, the power in Iran rests in the hands of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council (with its 12 members ultimately picked by the Supreme Leader).
Arash Fathi, an Iranian student in America, supports Mousavi - with reservations about how effective he could really be in implementing real change. "[H]e's making promises he cannot keep," Fathi said of Mousavi. "He says he will abolish police interference in people's lives - but the fashion police are controlled by the supreme leader, so he simply can't do that."
If any president can stand up to the Islamic leadership, though, it might be Mousavi. He butted heads with the Supreme Leader Khamenei when Khamenei was president and Mousavi was prime minister. Of course, Mousavi would not be in the current race if he had not gotten the permission of Khamenei, since everything ultimately passes by the supreme leader. Yet, Mousavi has tussled with Khamenei in the past and may be willing to press him in the future.
While Mousavi has a visible chance, Ahmadinejad still has plenty of support in Iran, especially among the hardline religious Muslims and the less wealthy.
"If Ahmadinejad gets to be president again, the problems of the poor people will be solved," says Mohamad Reza Bahdani in the eastern city of Birjand. Bahdani believes Ahmadinejad has been assisted by the Mahdi, the Shiite Messiah, whom many Muslims expect will soon come to take over the world.
"Previous governments were turning away from Islam and becoming irreligious, but Ahmadinejad – with the help of Imam Mahdi – has got more people around religion again," says Bahdani.
At the same time, plenty of Iranians are concerned that Ahmadinejad is going to destroy the country between his foreign policy speeches and his economic policies. Making a complete enemy of the United States is not going to help Iran, something a large number of moderate Iranians recognize. President Ahmadinejad may be a pious Muslim, and he may support the poor, but practical Muslims in Iran still care about their pocketbooks and avoiding political isolation.
There is no real way to predict who will win on Friday. This is an important election for Iran as it currently faces antipathy from the world, and yet a readily friendly hand from the US if it shows itself friendly.
"The winner of Friday's vote will shape Iran's view of itself and the world – and the world's view of the Islamic Republic," writes Scott Peterson of The Christian Science Monitor. "He will set the tone on a range of geostrategic issues, from how to engage President Obama – and possibly ease 30 years of anti-American hostility – to whether to scale back nuclear defiance and anti-Israeli diatribes."
At least 429 journalists from 44 countries have expressed interest in covering the Iranian election on Friday. The whole world is waiting to see what happens.
Who is Challenging Ahmadinejad's Power? - NBC
In Iran Election, Tradition Competes With Web - The Washington Post
Iran Elections: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Faces Run-Off In Poll - Telegraph.co.uk
Iran Election: Diaspora Views - BBC
Ahmadinejad And Mousavi Rallies Bring Tehran To Halt - Guardian.co.uk
429 Foreign Journalists Wish To Cover Iran Presidential Elections - Zawya.com
Iran's Presidential RaceTightens - The Christian Science Monitor
Conflict Within Islam: Sunnis and Shiites - Koinonia House