A few days before the Iranian election, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a big rally at the Mosallah Mosque said to be the world’s largest, if it is ever completed in central Tehran. It was not very well organized. About 20,000 supporters of the President were inside the building, being entertained by a series of TV stars, athletes and religious singers. Many thousands more swirled outside. Inside, a TV host led the crowd in chanting “Death to Israel.” “Squeeze your teeth and yell from the bottom of your heart,” he implored. Later, the host said he had once asked Iran’s President where he got the energy to travel to all the provinces. “My heart is powered by nuclear fuel,” Ahmadinejad replied. The place was hot, and packed, and people were fainting. After several hours, the host announced that the President would not be speaking: he had gotten caught up in the crowds outside the mosque. And so Nahid Siamdoust, TIME’s Tehran reporter, and I began a three-hour journey to get back to my hotel, which was only a few miles away.
We walked at first, then found a cab. But central Tehran had become an implacable traffic jam and a gridlocked political debate. The Ahmadinejad supporters, many on motor scooters, skittered through the lines of automobiles, most of which were decked out with signs supporting the moderate challenger Mir-Hossein Mousavi. There was good-natured banter between the two groups. “Chist, chist, chist,” the Ahmadinejad supporters chanted, referring to Mousavi’s awkward, constant use of that word Farsi for “y’know” during his debate with Ahmadinejad. The Mousavi supporters chanted, “Ahmadi bye, bye.” After about an hour, our cabdriver gave up, and Nahid and I set out on foot.
The streets were getting very crowded now and there was a giddiness to the scene. It was the sort of crowd that might gather after a football victory. The Ahmadinejad supporters, dressed in the red, white and green of the Iranian flag, seemed to be enjoying the freedom as much as the more flamboyant Mousavi supporters, who were draped in green. At one point, an Ahmadinejad supporter stuck his head out the window of his car and sang a lullaby, “Mousavi lai, lai,” in response to the students chanting “Ahmadi bye, bye.” The students laughed. It was as if someone had opened a door and an entire country had spilled out. It was possible to believe, for a moment, that these genial young people, from both sides, might be creating a new, more open Iran for themselves.
And then, the door slammed shut again.
It has to be assumed that the Iranian presidential election was rigged, but it is impossible to know how heavily the government’s thumb rested on the scales. It is entirely possible that Ahmadinejad would have won anyway, but narrowly, perhaps with less than 50% of the vote, setting up a runoff election he might have lost as the other candidates united against him. It is possible that his government, perhaps acting in concert with Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, decided to take no chances.
But even if the election campaign, in the end, proves meaningless, it provided a rare look at the divisions in Iranian society, and not just between the working-class Ahmadinejad supporters and the wealthier, better-educated backers of Mousavi. It also put the internal rivalries at the highest levels of the Iranian government on public display for the first time, and in the most embarrassing fashion.
The President was, without question, the best politician in the race. His debates against the two reformers, Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, were routs. Both challengers were exemplars of the older generation the generation that made the Islamic revolution in 1979 and both were flummoxed by a candidate who seemed to have been trained by some Iranian equivalent of Karl Rove. They appeared paralyzed by what they considered his coarse impertinence; in American terms, these might have been debates between George Bush the Elder and Newt Gingrich, a gentlemanly establishmentarian against a rude populist brawler. Ahmadinejad was a slick combination of facts and accusations. He spoke directly into the camera. He deployed little charts, as Ross Perot did in the 1990s, to show that things weren’t as bad as people thought. His statistics were heavily massaged and challenged by his opponents, but he had muddied his greatest vulnerability the stagflating Iranian economy. The real jaw dropper, however, was Ahmadinejad’s willingness to attack in the most personal terms. He attacked Mousavi for being supported by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom he flatly called corrupt ; he attacked Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, a famous artist and activist, for allegedly getting into college without taking the entrance exam; he attacked Karroubi for taking money from a convicted scam artist.
See TIME’s pictures of the week.