Once apathetic, young Iranians now say they'll vote

Tens of thousands have rallied in favor of Ahmadinejad challenger Mousavi ahead of June 12 election.

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Supporters of Iran's top presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi hold hands wrapped with ribbons of green, the color of the campaign, in Tehran on Tuesday. Tens of thousands of Iranians, especially women and youths, have taken to the streets in an unprecedented show of support for the former prime minister before the June 12 elections.

She did not vote in Iran's last election. Nor in the election before that. But the young Iranian law graduate, who once took pride in her distance from politics, says that Friday's presidential election is "different."

So every night for a week now, Tooska has headed out with friends after midnight and joined tens of thousands of other boisterous Iranians filling the streets of the capital to shout, honk, and chant their support for top challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Tooska's decision to vote is one of a number of phenomena that are sweeping Iran during the current election, which has become a highly contested referendum on the performance of the archconservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rolicking in the car as it lurches forward in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Tooska lets her head scarf fall back as she explains why, this time, she is taking part. Motorcycles roar past with Mousavi posters, trailing green ribbons that mark Mr. Mousavi's "green wave" campaign, the riders hurling insults at the president.

"Like Mousavi, I feel the danger we are in," says Tooska, who asked that this pseudonym be used. The scenes on these streets were inconceivable just a few weeks ago; even those in the throng stare in disbelief, repeating that they have never witnessed such a political outpouring in Iran in their lives.

"During these four years, everyone is unsatisfied with the system [of the Islamic Republic]," says Tooska, her eyes riveted on the public party scene around her. "This time, change is necessary because [the situation] is worse than ever."

Tooska is one of three apolitical Iranians, interviewed by the Monitor in March 2008, who chose not to vote in parliamentary elections. But in each case, their disillusion has turned to determination to vote for a new president.

Back then, Tooska sought solace in her own world, as a painter and karate competitor.

"I oblige myself to tolerate what I can't change," she told the Monitor. "You can't be angry every morning, all the time ... with the country."

A sense that real change in possible

But now, the chance of change seems real to these three electoral converts. Though just a microsampling, their change in attitude seems mirrored in many Iranian cities – and especially the capital, Tehran, which is home to 20 percent of the population.

These were once the foot soldiers of the reform movement, which peaked with the election landslides of Mohamad Khatami in 1997 and 2001. The high expectations and promises of more social freedoms and political openness were then thwarted – sometimes violently – by hard-line politicians as well as security and vigilante forces.

The result was resignation and withdrawal in disgust from politics by those who gave Mr. Khatami unprecedented turnouts and victories of 70 percent and 79 percent in the two elections.

Conservatives have long been able to count on bedrock support of up to 20 percent. But efforts by post-Khatami reformists to lure more liberal, Western-leaning voters back to the polls have until now failed, in a regime that, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, equated voter turnout with legitimacy.

Week's rallies suggest a large turnout

And that turnout is going to be large, if the events of this week are any gauge. Candidates have held rival rallies and marches, and Mousavi supporters formed a human chain along a green ribbon from the top of Tehran to the bottom, a 12-mile stretch of Vali Asr Avenue that is the longest of its kind in the Middle East.

"It was an experience of a lifetime – it was so beautiful. I was so happy to be there," says Siavash, a sales manager at a large office supply store. "Nobody planned it. People just came out, not because they believe [in Mousavi], but because they want something to be stopped."

Siavash didn't vote last time, figuring that it was a waste of time. When the Monitor first met him in 2005, Siavash – also a pseudonym – was picking up Westernized Iranian women while stuck in traffic.

"I believe this is bigger than [Khatami's movement]," says Siavash, who wears a suit and tie at work, and sports a green ribbon tied around his wrist. "Let's say the wave out there is bigger. This green color is a branding. I don't have to have a poster on my back – just put this on my wrist."

Siavash admits that Mousavi, a former prime minister during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, who has been endorsed by Khatami, is "not a perfect choice."

While most of those on the street don't know him well, says Siavash, "the most important thing of all is to stop what is happening in the last four years in a democratic way."

Complaints about economy, morality police

Siavash echoes common complaints. He blames Mr. Ahmadinejad for economic "mismanagement" that has seen sales at his company drop 50 percent in the past year, for giving the morality police a "free hand" to hassle people for unIslamic dress and behavior, and for an aggressive foreign policy toward the West.

"Being a bully is not the answer to the question," says Siavash.

Those who have taken to the streets in recent days also include plenty of supporters of Ahmadinejad, who have engaged their Mousavi rivals in shouting matches and even, at times, exchanged punches with them.

Analysts worry that expectations for dramatic change are rising too far, too fast.

"It's going in a swing, in a big way, totally to the extreme," says a veteran Iranian political observer here, who asked not to be named. "This ingenious idea of green: It is such a small thing, and it caught. Suddenly, with a little piece of cloth, you could say so much, against Ahmadinejad, and all the problems. Underneath the apathy there was something, waiting to be led, to be awakened."

And yet, now awakened, the surge for Mousavi carries its own risks.

"It's amazing, fantastic, and we are having it!" says the analyst. "But the 'green wave' should expect to be disappointed. In the minds of people, they expect reforms compared to 12 years ago."

This time, he's voting

Alireza Mahfouzian would settle for a lot less. The one-time culture warrior and playboy, who the Monitor first featured in 2000, when he was illegally kissing his girlfriend on ski slopes north of Tehran, has had to sell his stake in a fast-food restaurant and look at options in construction.

Mr. Mahfouzian has never voted in a national election – not even for Khatami. He does not go onto the streets wearing green, nor shout against Ahmadinejad.

Yet this time, he will vote for Mousavi – and take his mother along with him, to make sure she votes, too.

"There are many reasons I don't like Ahmadinejad," says the 30-year-old, who wears expensive jewelry and drives a very expensive car, which he happily admits is a tool for meeting women. "Mousavi is like an anesthetic they put up, like Khatami was."

He is not convinced that Iran will change much for the better under Mousavi, and says he likes Ahmadinejad's attention to science, from Iran's nuclear and satellite programs to stem-cell research. But the economy has been crippled.

Mahfouzian draws a parallel to the anti-Bush support for President Barack Obama in the US election.

"With Ahmadinejad, it is exactly the same," he says. "The main problem is, we don't have freedom, and because we don't have freedom, we feel the problems more."

Indeed, hunger for change and more freedom is what drives many onto the streets before the vote, even if many are there just for the unprecedented carnival atmosphere.

"I've never seen this in my life," shouts 20-something Kiavash Mohammadi, in the midst of a noisy, 2 a.m. chaos of cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians. It was long after Mousavi's campaign bus had passed by, the candidate waving from inside after a national television appearance.

Some dismiss 'people power'

A man in a wornout car nearby was dismissive of the noisy show of people power.

"They all think that if they overthrow Ahmadinejad everything will be OK, but that's not true," he says.

Western classical music plays on this man's car stereo, but he is no supporter of Mousavi. "I think Ahmadinejad has been strong for Iran."

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