Iranians poured into polling stations in a key presidential election on Friday, transforming the electricity of a tumultuous campaign and street demonstrations into a near-record turnout.
This election, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's main opponent surged in the final days, is being seen as a referendum on how the government is handling its faltering economy and aggressive foreign policy. Iran's decision to oust Mr. Ahmadinejad – or not – will shape the Islamic Republic's response to US President Obama's recent overtures and key issues such as Iran's nuclear program.
"This is very important for us, because we want to choose our own candidate – so we can choose our own destiny," said Babak, an electrician in south Tehran, as he made his way to his local mosque to vote. "This is the first time that the campaign was marvelous. It was infinity!"
Top challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, he said, "will win 100 percent."
But just to be sure, many Mousavi supporters carried their own pens to the polls, after rumors circulated by text message that operatives of hard-line Ahmadinejad had imported 2 million pens with disappearing ink – so that votes for his opponents would be invalid.
A flicker of a counterrumor held that it was in fact the opposition camp – whose champion, Mr. Mousavi, has drawn the most support on the streets, and whose green-clad supporters predict victory over the incumbent – that had sneaked in such pens.
But those and many other rumors of vote-rigging did not deter the majority of Iran's 46.2 million eligible voters from lining up from early morning at some 45,000 polling stations, causing the polls' closing times to be extended twice. Officials said they expected "unprecedented" turnout could top 70 percent, close to the 80 percent achieved by reformist Mohamad Khatami in his landslide 1997 victory.
Opponents of Ahmadinejad have long argued that high turnout would put the embattled president at a disadvantage. But the regime has also sought since the 1979 Islamic revolution to demonstrate its legitimacy with high turnout.
Washington was keeping a close eye on the result.
"We think there's the possibility of change," Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House on Friday, acknowledging that it was up to Iranians to choose a leader. "Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways."
Pro-Ahmadinejad basiji militants attack Mousavi headquarters
Excitement was palpable, in one polling booth after another. State television showed couples dressed in marriage finest, voting on their way to their wedding. "This election is as important as our wedlock; that's why we are doing both on the same day," said one bride.
Voting alongside his wife in an Ahmadinejad stronghold of south Tehran, Mousavi stained his finger purple, then used it to make his point by noting that some of his camp's election monitors had not been given access to all the polling stations. He complained that Iran's text-messaging service – by one count carrying 90 million messages a day, many of them pro-Mousavi notes to mobilize people – had been cut off early Friday morning.
"I thank all the people for their green presence which created a miracle," Mousavi said after voting. Iran's unity was an "achievement" of the Islamic revolution, he said, calling on officials to allow his representatives access "as soon as possible."
"We should not be fearful about the free flow of information, and I urge officials to observe the law," said Mousavi.
When polls were meant to close at 9 p.m., already there were reports – confirmed by eyewitnesses and a video uploaded to the Internet – that about a dozen pro-Ahmadinejad basiji militants with pistols and pepper spray moved to shut down the Mousavi headquarters in the religious north Tehran district of Qeytariyeh. One witness described a fire at another Mousavi location.
Defiant voters: 'We each are a nuclear bomb'
Mr. Khatami, who remains one of the most popular politicians in Iran despite the collapse of the reform movement from the late 1990s, said after voting on Friday: "All indications suggest that Mousavi has won."
But the trend was hardly all pro-Mousavi. In Shahr-e Rey, a suburb of south Tehran where Mousavi voted, most of the graffiti and posters on walls hailed Ahmadinejad.
The combative television debates and street demonstrations "showed democracy in our country, the honor of our country, because of the enthusiasm and because of the freedom of speech," said a banker called Nafiseh.
She accused the US and the West of meddling in Iranian affairs and said Ahmadinejad's aggressive and principled stands were correct: "We consider elections to be a war," said Nafiseh. "They say we have nuclear weapons, but the fact is we each are a nuclear bomb. The more they say against us, the stronger we become."
But even as she spoke, another woman dressed all in black stepped up and retorted in English: "Ahmadinejad is a big liar, 100 percent!" said Fatemeh. "In four years [he] has lied to Iran, all our foreign policy is so bad. The oil of Iran goes to [Lebanese militant group] Hezbollah, and not to us."
'Mousavi is a correct thinker'
Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei, voted the moment polls opened, and called upon all Iranians to vote and "have their share in governing the country and to choose who is best fit to govern the country for the next four years."
Ayatollah Khamenei thanked Iranians for their "enthusiastic presence in the past few days in the elections [campaigning]," adding that "with their improved maturity, morality, and thought, did not allow any sad scenes to be created amidst the enthusiasm."
Khamenei warned against believing rumors about him and the elections, which he said were passed along by people with "unsound minds."
Those rumors did not affect the debate inside one family. Housewife Zahra Khalili held her 7-month-old baby outside a polling station, and is a strong supporter of Ahmadinejad, who she said "God willing" would be reelected.
But her brother-in-law, a teacher standing beside her, was not convinced. "Mousavi is a correct thinker," said Asghar Davoudi. "We don't want a liar. Living simply [like Ahmadinejad] is not important. Doing good work, being active, is much better."
Perhaps Ahmadinejad summed it up best after he voted. The location where the archconservative would vote was a closely held secret until the last moment – apparently out of safety concerns, sources close to his campaign said – so only a handful of photographers were on hand.
After voting, the president said: "People's strong, revolutionary, and clear decision will bring about a bright future for the nation."