Tehran’s main squares and streets have been crowded until the wee
hours over this past week, as supporters of the upcoming election’s two leading
contestants roam the streets on foot and in cars, chanting,
honking their horns, waving posters. On Tuesday night, a group of about 100 young men gathered on one side of Parkway Square, waving pictures of President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and shouting
slogans like, “Ahmadi, you’re my life! You’re my future president!” Facing them separated by a line of police and plainclothes
security officials stood a crowd of young men at least twice the size. Dressed in green to express support for the moderate
challenger Mir-Hossein Moussavi, they chanted back, “Death to
this government that lies to its own people!” Scenes like these are
emblematic of the country’s main political divide in the run-up to
Iran’s presidential elections on June 12.
“There is a bipolarity in Iranian politics right now,” says
Mohammad Atrianfar, a political analyst in Tehran. “The change they
were seeking in the U.S. is happening here, too. People are trying to
unseat Ahmadinejad.” There are also plenty of
people who want the current President to stay, and
Ahmadinejad has styled himself as the candidate of change itself, the anti-corruption revolutionary the Islamic Republic needs for its
revival. But while an Ahmadinejad victory would mean more of the same populist
economics and antagonism toward a “hostile” U.S., a Moussavi
upset could herald the revival of reformist politics in Iran.
On a recent Friday afternoon in south Tehran, an auditorium packed with some 6,000 Ahmadinejad supporters was filled with anthemic music as large video screens showed images of Iran’s nuclear energy
facilities and the recently launched Omid satellite achievements that the Ahmadinejad administration prides itself on.
Above the crowd, banners with pictures of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali
Khameini and Ahmadinejad covered the walls.
Finally, Ahmadinejad appeared on stage amid a throng of aides, all male, all dressed in black. The
crowd burst into chants exalting the
president. Over the last four years, Ahmadinejad has cultivated an image as the
leader of the downtrodden. At home, the
hallmark of his presidency has been his visits to provincial towns and villages, always
highlighting the plight of society’s least privileged in his speeches.
“We came to make a revolution from within the state,” the president’s
aide Mehdi Kalhor tells TIME. “This was a revolution of the bare-
With oil prices reaching a peak of $160 per barrel during his
presidency, Ahmadinejad’s government has collected about
$280 billion in oil income over four years, as much as his predecessors did in their cumulative
16 years in office. He has used some of that money to distribute
cash handouts across Iran, to facilitate loans to lower-income families, provide housing
subsidies, and raise wages and pensions for government employees.
“My parents are both retired teachers and yet they could barely
sustain our household of seven,” said an enthusiastic Amin Kazemi, a 19-year-old
student of software engineering, at Friday’s rally. “Since Ahmadinejad, both
their salaries have gone up and we can live with dignity.”
For years, Ahmadinejad’s government has talked about distributing “justice
shares” from the profits of state-owned companies. A few weeks before
the elections, for the first time, payments were made to 5.5 million of Iran’s poorest. But the president’s critics say he has
pushed Iran’s inflation rate to 25% with his “alms” policies. “They blame us for distributing potatoes,” Ahmadinejad said from the stage.
“I say you insult our people. They came to get potatoes, but what did
they get to say ‘Death to America'” The crowd roared in approval, and the iron railing in the front row bowed as people strained to get ever closer to their president. “The people of Iran will
never accept imperialism!”
There could not be more contrast between an Ahmadinejad campaign event
the stage occupied only by men, supporters dressed
in black, the air filled with sentimental music and religious
chants and a recent rally for Moussavi, with supporters covered in shades of
green bouncing to uplifting pop music and women standing on stage to represent him. At a recent Moussavi event attended by some 20,000 supporters but not the man himself banners carried phrases like “Government of Hope,”
“Justice” and “Freedom.” A video showcased Iran’s national
icons, starting with heroes of the 1905 constitutional revolution through to the founder of the Islamic
Republic, Imam Khomeini. Missing in the genealogy was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “For the first time in four years, we have an opportunity to protest
this deceptive government,” said Azar Sarikhani, 21, a
student of applied mathematics. “We will never give up on the ideals
we’ve had for more than a 100 years, ideals of democracy and rule of
law. Freedom is a wish that never dies!”
A series of speakers came on to throw their support behind
Moussavi, including artists who complained about restrictions on the
the arts under Ahmadinejad, and Moussavi’s wife, former
university dean Zahra Rahnavard, expressing hope for independent
universities. Then the star of the show, former President Mohammad Khatami who dropped out of the race to endorse Moussavi took the stage to deafening cheers of “Greetings to Khatami!” He spoke of an Islam based on rationality and on “Iran’s powerful youth and
the potential of its women.”
In his own speeches, Moussavi has talked of prohibiting the government
from interfering in people’s private lives, and allowing for people to
participate in the public sphere. Ahmadinejad’s government has clamped
down on NGO activity, wary of the $75 million former Secretary of
State Condoleeza Rice allotted for “democracy promotion” in Iran.
In many ways, this election is a continuing struggle over the definition of
the country’s revolution 30 years ago, and its achievements.
That remarkable event of idealism sought economic equity and
justice, as well as true national independence and democracy.
Whether Iranians choose a government that promises greater
freedoms and civic participation will depend on the extent to which
the country’s lower classes feel the
revolution’s economic promises have been fulfilled. If they still are not satisfied, a
theocratic democracy that gives one vote to every one of its 70
million citizens Supreme Leader, manual worker or democracy activist
may see a populist government like Ahmadinejad’s rewarded at the
See the photo-essay “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Iranian Paradox.”
See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.