Iran blossoms in this campaign season


The streets are clogged with traffic so we get on the highway, the windows down and music blaring. I am with two friends, driving through Tehran after midnight, enjoying the cool air with no particular destination.

One of them grabs a poster for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from a passing motorcyclist and begins waving it at the other drivers, most of them stunned that a fashionable woman wearing hijab lite would support the hard-line Iranian president.

“Are you serious?” one man tells her. “Do you know what Ahmadinejad’s [Islamic] Guidance Patrol would do to you if they saw you?”


A car full of other friends pulls up alongside. They are holding up posters of former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a moderate who is Ahmadinejad’s top rival in the presidential election Friday.

“Doctor, go to the doctor!” they chant, a popular slogan mocking both Ahmadinejad’s doctoral degree in traffic management and his mental health.

“Only Ahmadinejad!” my friends chant back, laughing. We speed up, and they speed up, two Peugeot 206 hatchbacks racing down the highway into the early morning, dancing perilously past each other at 70 mph.

The cars jamming the streets of late-night Tehran, mostly full of young people, are talking to each other: beep, beep, beep-beep-beep.

Even though it’s a workweek night, all sorts of people are out, holding up flags and banners of green, the Mousavi campaign’s official color, as the cars inch past the crowds, their horns honking in what has emerged as a distinctive call sign of Mousavi’s supporters.

One street rally has turned into a disco, with young men dancing to pop music and women standing up through sunroofs cheering them on.

“You don’t know how to dance!” one woman calls out cheerily to a group of young men wearing green T-shirts. “Dance better!”

These are strange, magical days in Iran, where a landmark presidential race pitting Ahmadinejad against Mousavi and two other challengers has opened up the country’s political and public spaces to an extent not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Students have called the president a liar to his face. Carnival-like demonstrations erupt on the streets. Ordinary people engage in lively political debates with strangers on street corners.

In big cities such as Esfahan and Tehran, caravans of motorcyclists stream down roadways nightly, sometimes with two people riding pillion. With one hand clutching each other for dear life, they hold up the green balloons and banners of the Mousavi campaign or the red, white and green Iranian flag, which has become the symbol of the Ahmadinejad campaign, as they roar past.

In the countryside, campaign posters plaster walls in sleepy, ancient mud-brick enclaves far from the main highways, where women in all-covering black chadors sweep past stark golden desert landscapes.

Shopkeepers, farmers and retirees hold impromptu debates, disagreeing amicably with one another, over the country’s problems and talking about its leaders -- in years past almost all would have been turbaned clerics above reproach -- as if they were athletes battling it out on the sports field.

It’s been a thrilling ride, with impromptu rallies sprouting in town and city squares alike. But beneath the good-spirited fun, there is an undercurrent of danger, highlighted by the walkie-talkie-toting plainclothes security officials hovering around the crowds and the nasty bare-knuckled chants that the rival groups hurl at each other.

In addition to revealing the repressed swell of youthful energy, the election season has laid bare Iran’s many divisions: between rural and urban; religious and secular; working-class and educated; old and young; those for whom the outside world remains a threat to their way of life and those who look outside Iran for ideas and opportunities.

Iran tends to loosen up during quadrennial presidential and parliamentary elections. The debates get a little more heated and street life a little less staid. But you never had anything like this year, when many of the country’s top power brokers, in a bid to defeat Ahmadinejad, used the levers of government to open up the campaign by allowing late-night campaigning and television debates.

You never had people spray-painting “Freedom!” on their vans and marching in spur-of-the-moment parades.

You never had the candidates on live television discussing state secrets, such as the president’s unsuccessful alleged attempt to give millions of dollars to foreign governments, that once were only whispered about.

You never had candidates openly accusing each other of corruption, cronyism and lying.

And you never had an incumbent president holding up the apparent intelligence dossier of the wife of his chief opponent, live on television.

“Should I say? Should I say?” Ahmadinejad taunted Mousavi, in what has since become a campaign slogan for the president’s rivals.

“When Mahmoud comes up short,” one chant goes, “he drags the womenfolk into the middle of it.”

“When Mousavi comes up short,” the opposing chant goes, “he brings in a bunch of sissy boys.”

In short, Iran has never been so fun.

A lengthy late-spring rainstorm discourages no one. Throngs of people stand out along Vali Asr Street, some covering themselves with campaign posters, others nonchalantly getting soaked in front of the headquarters of the state broadcasting authority, waiting for Mousavi to emerge.

“Ahmadinejad, listen up! Get out of Iran!” they chant.

I’ve given up taking cars anywhere, instead just walking and trying to hail taxis or even random strangers. During this political season, Tehran traffic, always horrific, has graduated to apocalyptic, with Mousavi’s supporters flooding roadways to counter Ahmadinejad’s advantages in the media, and the president’s supporters quickly calling out loyal Basij militiamen in response.

The big cities are a seeming lock for Mousavi, as are the northwestern provinces near Azerbaijan, where the country’s most influential ethnic minority loves the former prime minister, who is himself Azeri.

But Mousavi supporters acknowledge they’ll probably lose the votes of the rural and urban poor who were the beneficiaries of Ahmadinejad’s populist economic programs. In the course of four years, he handed out billions of dollars in low- or no-interest housing, agricultural and wedding loans that spurred inflation and real estate speculation but gave a short-term economic fix to the nation’s poor and pious.

“They gave out loans to people who could have never built houses otherwise,” says Reza Shah-Ragabi, 40, who grows watermelons in the central Iranian village of Gorgab.

“We support Ahmadinejad because he shares the rural worldview.”

Still, there are some signs that not everyone in the countryside supports the president. In a field outside the tiny hamlet of Habibabad, 20-year-old Gholam-Reza Ravanbakhsh works amid his father’s alfalfa, but dreams of a different life. He got his high school diploma and wants to study engineering, maybe travel abroad.

His entire family will vote for Ahmadinejad, but he confides that he’s likely to vote for Mousavi.

“For me the most important thing is the future of the young people,” he says, wiping the dust from his eyeglasses.

Ahmadinejad’s mostly poor urban supporters are more inchoate. Their bond to the president is emotional more than intellectual.

“He’s very brave,” says one female supporter of the president, who declines to give her name. “He stood up to the West on our nuclear program and he stood up to the fat cats here.”

“What did you get out of that?” I ask.

“What do you mean?”

“How did you benefit from his bravery?”

She pauses.

“He made us feel proud,” she says.

Iran is a young country, in more ways than one. Not only are the demographics heavily weighted toward those under 30, but the culture gives special consideration to youths, who are valued and spoken about with almost as much reverence as the elderly. “What about the young people? I feel sorry for them. What will become of them?” You hear that a lot from Iranians.

In Ahmadinejad’s attempts to stifle the joyous spirit of youth and restore the austerity and piety of the early years after the revolution, he may have sown the seeds of his own downfall.

He has angered an entire generation of apolitical young Iranians more inclined to party than organize, more interested in pursuing ambitious careers and remodeling their noses than campaigning on the streets. The “sissy boys” and girls from uptown who like to dance to cheap Persian pop music and drink homemade booze late into the night are out on the streets rallying against him.

“He’s beat us down so much,” says Adeleh, a black-haired 30-year-old Tehran dentist and Mousavi supporter who describes how she was detained one day a few months ago by the dreaded Guidance Patrol, the morality police, who hauled her to jail for wearing an outfit not deemed Islamic enough.

“Look at me!” she says, pointing to her elegant black coat and head scarf. “Do I look improper? When I told them I was a dentist, they were almost worse toward me, as if it was a crime to be a professional woman.”

Along Vali Asr Street, a young woman wearing battery-powered green devil’s horns hangs out a car window. She holds her hands up in a victory salute as a group of motorcyclists holding Ahmadinejad posters courses past through the clogged traffic. She and the young men scowl disapprovingly at each other, but say nothing.