Iran politicians woo the young

Presidential hopefuls reach out with music and rallies before Friday's vote to sway the under-30 majority.

Draped in an Iranian flag, Nahid Molavi clenches her fists and speaks with a political fervor that is supposed to have vanished among Iran's disillusioned youth.

"I support the one who values freedom," declares the 21-year-old history student during a rally for reformist presidential candidate Mustafa Moin.

"I came because I love freedom, because we are Iranians, and we will decide," says Ms. Molavi, who will vote in Friday's presidential election. "This flag is sacred to all of us, and while we are here, democracy will not die."

Ms. Molavi's conviction echoes the certitude of youth politics that once prevailed after erupting unexpectedly in 1997 with the overwhelming victory of President Mohammed Khatami.

Since then, however, hard-liners have blocked Mr. Khatami's agenda - to the point where legions of fans have now given up on reforms and angrily withdrawn from politics altogether.

Tapping into that widespread discontent, some youth leaders and prominent dissidents are calling for an election boycott, describing the reform project as a "failure" that proves the Islamic Republic can't be changed from within.

But the cheering, sometimes tearful, young supporters of Mr. Moin and other candidates - these days, a distinct minority who say they will vote - make clear that a strain of youth politics persists. And every campaign is targeting young people, recognizing the latent political power in the hands of the majority under 30 years old, who can vote from the age of 15.

"We are here for democracy, and Moin is just a tool to take us there," says Mohsen Pahlavizadeh, a student whose thick stubble and narrow face is the very image of a hard-line militiaman.

"We had many revolutions, and we don't want any more," says Mr. Pahlavadeh, referring to the violent revolution of 1979 that brought clerical rule to Iran. "We don't want any more violence. We want change from within."

"We want to continue the way of Khatami," adds Hamid Baharlou, another student with a headband painted with the party slogan: 'Again we make our country.' "But we want it to be more strong, and more precise."

Polls show that Moin is gaining ground on front-runner Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which could lead to a second-round runoff if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.

To reach that threshold and boost his credentials with youths, Mr. Rafsanjani, a two-time former president, has even created a TV segment that shows him in a panel discussion with young people.

The septuagenarian cracks a joke about nudity, and says that people should follow their taste in clothes, according to reports. "In the Islam I know ... no one would feel limited in their instincts," said Rafsanjani, a supporter of the Shiite practice of temporary marriage.

The cleric drew laughs when he admitted to "doing things as a young man that I would not confess to."

On the ground, Rafsanjani campaigners ooze an impression of openness, and try to convince doubters that it will continue after the vote. At a campaign headquarters in Tehran's affluent Fereshdeh neighborhood late Tuesday, a couple hundred people - most young, some with families - cheered an outdoor concert.

For more than two decades, playing music in public has been banned, with the exception of traditional instrumental performances. But both male and female singers took to the stage simultaneously at the Rafsanjani concert. The crowd clapped to the beat, and a visiting journalist was warned not to photograph people enjoying themselves so much in public.

"We're trying to make it so in the future, there will not be problems with the police," says Hamid Hosseini, a young goateed Rafsanjani volunteer. "We are trying to make [these events] more permanent, in public places, because now you can only have parties at home."

Not all are convinced. "Everybody knows that this is temporary, and only for the election," Samira Ghorbani, a graduate with a scanty head scarf and red lipstick, shouts over the amplified music. The election "makes no difference, so there is not reason to vote."

Also not voting is Ali, a civil engineering student who voted twice for Khatami, but has now given up. "Everyone knows the government of Iran, and so won't vote," he says. Candidates "don't want to do anything for the people, just strengthen the fundamentalist system."

The celebration with famous musicians is just another illusion, Ali says, waving toward the crowd. So too, he says, are the groups of young people roaring along the next road, hanging out in cars covered with Rafsanjani stickers and posters. "This is just to fool people," says Ali. "People will not be fooled."

But the youth debate about how to maximize impact - from inside or outside the system - is not resolved. "I have been reading [reformist] newspapers, and they say the choice is between bad and worse. I'm choosing bad," says Satoodeh Arezou, an office manager at the concert, who will vote reformist.

"We talk politics in the office a lot, but when I say I am going to vote, they all laugh," says Ms. Arezou. "I see my family - none of them are going to vote."

But others see the election as the only way to preserve any voice for change - a point made at the reformist rally by former parliamentarian Fatemeh Haqiqat-Jou, who had called for a boycott of the "unjust and illegal" vote.

"As we approach the day of the election, the more my ears are hurt by the sound of military boots," Ms. Haqiqat-Jou told the rally, adding that she could "anticipate the sound of bullets" of a new crackdown, if a hard-liner wins.

"So today, remaining silent is wrong," she said. "The election is our chance to express the thunder of freedom."

That message resonates with some true believers at the rally, who say they have learned from shunning an election last year, only to have parliament fall under hard-line control.

"If we don't vote ... when things aren't happening according to our plan, we can't complain," says student Mochtaba, a supporter of Moin. He is "absolutely" optimistic because "each of us can vote, along with our family and friends."

These youths are unimpressed with Rafsanjani's campaign, his wealth, or allegations of past corruption. They say supporters are paid about $6 a day to plaster their car with campaign stickers.

"We ask our friends why they work for Rafsanjani," says Mochtaba. "They answer: 'He took our money as president [from 1989 to 1997]. We want it back, and will vote for someone else.' "

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