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Iran's presidential race tightens

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces a surge from the more moderate challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, as more educated urban voters tire of his polarizing politics.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2009

Leading reformist Iranian presidential candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, waves to his supporters as he arrives in a campaign gathering in downtown Tehran, Iran, Monday. Mousavi is leading reformist challenger to the hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the Iranian presidential race on June 12.

Vahid Salemi/AP

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Birjand and Tehran, Iran

The stakes are high in Iran's presidential elections on Friday, and the supporters of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are feeling the pressure. If they had any doubt about this one-time Ahmadinejad stronghold, the eastern city of Birjand today exposes the cultural fault lines in the president's battle for reelection.

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Fellow hard-line conservatives champion the president's piety and support of the poor, while moderates feel an increasingly urgent need to pull the country back from the brink of economic meltdown and political isolation.

In Birjand, the division is as clear as the storefront glass.

A surprising number of posters for top challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi grace shops selling mobile phones, flowers, and glittering toys, many from the West. Ahmadinejad posters often adorn shops from a different stratum: those selling car parts; plumbing, electricity, and basic building materials; and hole-in-the-wall businesses.

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. 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.

Electoral energy not seen in years

Iranian election officials said on Monday they expect a record turnout among Iran's 46.2 million eligible voters. In Tehran, young people and families have taken to the streets nightly, wearing the colors of their candidates to cheer, shout, debate, and honk their horns with a level of electoral energy not seen in Iran for years.

Monday night was the heaviest yet in the capital.As thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters departed a large rally at which their candidate failed to arrive, Mousavi supporters – who had already been out in full force – were shouting "Ahmadi, Bye-Bye!" Someone even tried to light an Iranian flag – which happens to include the same three colors as Ahmadinejad's campaign materials – with a lighter.

Back in Birjand, the headquarters of Ahmadinejad's campaign is comparatively quiet. In a nondescript apartment, one worker sits on the floor folding campaign newsletters. Another attaches Iranian flags to wooden poles to be carried by motorcycle outriders in the convoy that will greet a high-level cleric later in the day, who is coming from Tehran to plug the archconservative incumbent.

"Everything we do is out of love for Ahmadinejad," enthuses campaign worker Hassan Shamshiri, as he lays out a fluorescent 15-foot banner that extols the president's virtues. "Just like Ahmadinejad, we work 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

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