Iran's Riveting Political Drama

No matter who wins on Friday, this election season has been unlike any other in Iran, with Twittering political rallies, rancorous televised debates—and a challenger that has Ahmadinejad lifting pages from Obama’s playbook. The Daily Beast hits the streets in Iran to gauge the mood.

Plus, read more insight on Iran's election from other Daily Beast writers.

On Friday, Iranians go to the polls to choose a new president in an election that will have profound consequences throughout the globe, not least in the United States, where President Obama has expressed a desire for a thaw in relations with Iran.

Although some 400 candidates signed up to run for the office, the election has become a four-way race, with the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, facing off against the even more conservative former commander of Iran’s dreaded Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Rezaie; the popular reformist and former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi; and the perennial populist and leftist candidate—Iran’s very own Ralph Nader—Mehdi Karroubi. With only a few days to go, however, the contest is shaping up into a two-man contest—and an unusually bitter, increasingly raucous, and utterly absorbing one at that—between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi.

“Many of us made a big mistake last time by not voting, and we’re paying for it now. In these four years we went backward.”

Four years ago Ahmadinejad burst onto the political scene in Iran as a relatively unknown figure who shocked Iranians, and the world, by beating the powerful cleric and absurdly wealthy businessman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—whose net worth Forbes estimates at $1 billion—to become Iran’s first non-cleric president. Back then, Ahmadinejad ran on a platform of reforming the economy and rooting out corruption in the government.

Four years later, thanks both to a precipitous drop in oil prices and his administration’s reckless financial policies, Iran’s economy is on the verge of total collapse. As a result, Ahmadinejad has reinvented himself as the one candidate who could most effectively reach out to Barack Obama and responsibly open up the country to the international community—something all candidates agree must be done but with vastly different ideas about how to do so. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s campaign slogan is Ma Mitavanim…Farsi for “Yes, we can!”

Mousavi’s supporters have responded to Ahmadinejad’s reinvention with open ridicule. “Ahmadi bye-bye!” has become the favorite chant of the former prime minister’s young, green-clad supporters, who have spent almost every night dancing and singing in the streets, rallying for their candidate. Mousavi’s reformist challenger, Karroubi, has gone so far as to refer to Ahmadinejad and his inner circle of advisers as “delusional fanatics.”

In any other year, such language from a presidential candidate would have been unheard of. But this election has been unlike any other in Iran. Beyond the massive crowds and the unprecedented interest that Iranians have displayed in the election’s outcome, this is the first time that presidential candidates have actually debated each other on live television.

It has made for riveting political drama. In the first of six scheduled debates, Ahmadinejad, rattled by Mousavi’s accusation that he had “shamed Iran” with his foreign policy, held up a picture of Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard—a professor of political science whose fierce campaigns for her husband have given her the nickname “Iran’s Michelle Obama”—and asked “Do you know this woman?”

He then questioned Rahnavard’s academic credentials and suggested she should not be campaigning for her husband. The attack backfired, pulling even greater support to Mousavi, especially from Iran’s massive women’s rights groups. The day after the debate, Rahnavard held a fiery news conference in which she threatened to sue Ahmadinejad for slander if he did not immediately and publicly apologize to her (no apology has been forthcoming).

Perhaps the biggest surprise of these elections is the role the Internet is playing in the campaigns. Taking a page from the Obama playbook, all four candidates are on Facebook and Twitter (Mousavi’s Facebook page boasts more than 30,000 supporters). Huge, spontaneous rallies have been coordinate by text message.

It seems that, as with the previous elections, large urban centers, including conservative cities like Isfahan and Mashad, will go to Mousavi (it is difficult to find an Ahmadinejad supporter in Tehran!), while poorer and more rural voters are overwhelmingly supporting Ahmadinejad.

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With the help of Iranian-American journalist Jason Rezaian, The Daily Beast asked a sampling of young Iranians across the country whom they were planning on voting for and why. Their answers demonstrate the wide range of political and religious views that have made Iran one of the most dynamic political cultures in the whole of the Muslim world.

“I haven’t decided yet, but I will most likely vote for Mousavi. I really don’t want to, but if Ahmadinejad wins again, it will be very bad. Many of us made a big mistake last time by not voting, and we’re paying for it now. In these four years we went backward. It will take another four just to get us back to where we were.” -Abbas, 28, Tehran. Works in family home interior shop.

“My vote is for Mr. Mousavi because he supports freedom and a free economy. These are the best reasons for me to support any candidate.” -Reza, 23, Rasht. Civil engineering student.

“We all remember when Ahmadinejad was mayor and all the help he gave those of us who were struggling. He made bureaucratic work faster and cheaper for us. We will never forget that.” -Parvaneh, 28, Tehran. Schoolteacher.

“I’ve been with the reformists since I was a kid. Karroubi is the only candidate who has been with that group all these years, and he’s the only one I have any faith in.” -Parsia, 26, Tehran. Photographer.

“As a feminist, I don’t think I could vote for anyone besides Mousavi. His wife (Zahra Rahnavard) will play a big role in his administration, and that’s why you see all of us young women wearing green.” -Azadeh, 24, Mashhad. Graduate student.

“I voted in both of the last two elections and really wasn’t happy with the results, even though both times the candidate I voted for won. I’m sorry, but I can’t see the point in doing it again.” -Asal, 25, Tehran. Web designer.

“I’ll vote for no one. I don’t accept any of them. Mousavi can’t even talk. Maybe I’ll vote for myself.” -Niloofar, 22, Isfahan. History student.

“I think voting is a gimmick, but I’m going to vote for Mousavi. I can’t really comment about our domestic situation, whether it would have been better under someone else. I know, however, that our international image has suffered tremendously under Ahmadinejad, and that’s a big concern for me.” -Mohammad Reza, 22, Mashhad. Electrical engineering student.

“Ahmadinejad gave us 70,000 touman (about $7.20) last month. What have the other three given us? I think it’s pretty clear who I’m voting for.” -Shireen, 25, Sabsevar. Single woman, lives with parents.

“I’m with Ahmadinejad. I’m a worker. I make 350,000 touman (about $36) per month. I’ve been to many places—Bangkok, Pattaya, Malaysia, Singapore—and no place will ever be as good as Iran. We are free to be Iranian here. I’d never want to live anywhere else.” -Babak, 26, Tehran. Worker and former Basij member.

“Look at him. Ahmadinejad is one of us.” -Mehran, 20, Shahr Rey (Shah Abdul Azim, Lower Tehran). Religion student and Basij member.

“Rezaie is more focused on his strategy for running the country than the other candidates. His ideas are reliable and attainable. That’s why I’m voting for him.” -Rasoul, 26, Tehran. Cameraman.

“I haven’t decided yet if I’ll vote for Karroubi or Mousavi. They’re both religious, but not overly so. The respect those who are different than they are, and I don’t feel like they’re trying to show off. They’re more honest, and obviously foreign policy under either would be much better.” -Naficey, 29, Mashhad. Unemployed.

“A vote for any of them is a vote for the system. No, thanks.” -Mehrdad, 25, Tehran. Taxi driver.

“I’ve never voted, and I won’t vote now. I’m clean.” -Saeed, 28, Tehran. Factory worker.

Xtra Insight: Plus, read more views on Iran's historic election from other Daily Beast writers.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War.