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.
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."
They have no doubt that their devout candidate will sweep the polls, as he did in 2005, when he won a higher percentage of voters here than in any other city.
They claim 84 percent support for the president, who has visited this provincial capital 800 miles southeast of Tehran twice, bringing scores of projects and bundles of cash. But behind the brash talk there is subdued concern about the recent surge of Mr. Mousavi, a relatively moderate former prime minister who accuses Ahmadinejad of using incorrect statistics and "lies" to falsely burnish his record.
Ahmadinejad focus on provincial areas yields support
The president's noisy defiance of the West, embrace of Iran's "right" to nuclear power, and return to the roots of the 1979 Islamic Revolution resonate with many voters in Iran. And presidential attention in long-underdeveloped areas like Birjand – manifest nationwide in 60 provincial trips he has made to the provinces – has transformed some lives.
"Compared to a couple years ago, no one thought of getting a home or getting married, but with all the money pouring in, people can make their own shop, get jobs, and get married," says Mohamad Reza Bahdani, a thin-bearded supporter who works with the city's water department.
"If Ahmadinejad gets to be president again, the problems of the poor people will be solved," asserts Mr. Bahdani, as he waits for his order in a sandwich shop decorated with three posters of the president. He says Ahmadinejad has had the help of the Shiite Messiah, called the Mahdi, whose name the president often invokes and whom he expects to return soon to the world.
"Previous governments were turning away from Islam and becoming irreligious, but Ahmadinejad – with the help of Imam Mahdi – has got more people around religion again," says Bahdani.
Despite Mousavi's respected premiership during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, he has since gone "in the wrong direction," says Bahdani. "God willing, he will not win. If he does, we will really understand the people have not awakened yet."
Such expectations are too lofty for Mehdi Hassan Khani, a young taxi driver who recently withdrew his $600 investment from a presidential housing scheme that yielded nothing after three years.
Mr. Khani voted for Ahmadinejad in 2005, but "he did nothing," he says. Pinched by Iran's flagging economy, with an inflation rate that soared to 30 percent and wiped out many of the benefits of presidential largesse in the provinces, Khani will this time vote for Mousavi.
After Ahmadinejad stated in a televised debate over the weekend that inflation stood at less than 15 percent, as part of a series of graphics that all showed positive trends, rivals cried foul. They accused the president of presenting Iran as a place where "all the fields are green and all the flowers in blossom."
Newspapers then published the official inflation rate: more than 23 percent. On Monday morning, the website of the government statistics office was temporarily disabled, as were all links from the site of Iran's central bank.
The chances of the top two candidates are likely to hinge on perceptions of how isolated Iran has become in four years of Ahmadinejad's abrasive tenure, about whether he has closed the gap between rich and poor, and about his claimed achievements.
When Ahmadinejad visited Birjand in December 2007 – a visit observed by the Monitor – he was greeted like a rock star. Back then, when the president entered Birjand's most important mosque, the packed crowd leapt up with a collective gasp to catch a glimpse of their hero.
So campaign volunteers now hand out leaflets detailing what the president has done for the city and surrounding South Khorasan province, as well as for the entire country.
The province had seen 700 miles of new natural gas lines laid, with 5,800 new branch lines. Fuel consumption had become more efficient. The number of electricity lines increased by half, and the number of villages with electricity increased by 20 percent.
The leaflets also portrayed a national level of achievement – from increased car manufacturing capacity to Internet and mobile phone penetration – that rival candidates charge are either fanciful, made-up, or have nothing at all to do with the government.
But in Birjand, where state-run TV is the source of most news, all the statistics show a man of untiring effort. One poster reprinted a quote by Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader:: "I consider this government the government of work and action."
'If everyone became an Ahmadinejad, Iran would become very successful'
The president's base has been the pious poor who have responded most to his efforts to bring "justice" and spread Iran's oil wealth.
They were the ones who formed the bulk of the long convoy Saturday evening to welcome cleric Morteza Agha Tehrani, the current head of the ethics committee in Ahmadinejad's cabinet. Young men outdid each other to plaster their motorbikes with portraits of Ahmadinejad, and roared off with Iranian flags flying to usher Mr. Tehrani into the city.
Hundreds of people packed the entrance of a mosque where the cleric lauded Ahmadinejad from the pulpit, saying that if anyone died in the crush to get to the mosque – or indeed during the hurly-burly of the election campaign itself – he would consider them a religious "martyr."
Just 75 yards from the entrance of the mosque, a young man wearing a green armband – the color of the Mousavi campaign – shouted in disgust at the deeply conservative crowd, "They are not Iranians!"
But inside, support for Ahmadinejad ran deep. "The revolution was reborn by [Ahmadinejad], and the Leader thinks the same," the white-turbaned Tehrani told these voters. There are two ways to respond to an attack, he said. "Some go into defense mode, and just try not to get hit. But some like Mr. Ahmadinejad are always in attack mode. When somebody wants to punch him, he is ready and will punch them first."
Asserted the cleric: "If everyone of us became an Ahmadinejad, our country would be very successful."