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The Election That Changed A Nation

A woman walks past campaign posters in early June.

A woman walks past campaign posters in early June.

Iran will never return to where it was two months prior to this presidential election.

The campaign took unexpected twists and turns and created strong popular interest. It galvanized hundreds of thousands of mainly young people to take part in political rallies and even engage in street brawls for or against incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

As the crucial day drew closer, the election seemed increasingly like a make-or-break historic milepost for the controversial one-term president and his allies in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and other Iranian power structures.

The really interesting thing is that it didn't have to be this way. The authorities could have conducted a much less intense campaign so that even if Ahmadinejad lost, the conservatives that he represents could have held out hope that things would return to normal, that their power and influence and economic advantages would eventually be restored.

But the inexplicable decision to hold televised debates changed all that. In addition, the bombastic incumbent relentlessly stirred the pot during his debate with reformist candidate Mir Hossein Musavi. He made an unprecedented attack on the faction of the political elite headed by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accusing them of massive corruption and living princely lifestyles.

Although Iranians talk constantly among themselves about corrupt politicians, it was the first time the president of the republic openly broke ranks with an important segment of the leadership and called them thieves on national television.

Who, Me?

There were two reactions to this development. Some people lauded the president's "courage" and seemed to indicate it might incline them to support the incumbent.

But most felt that Ahmadinejad had just revealed the tip of the iceberg and that his remarks merely prove that the regime itself is deeply corrupt. What about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his family? What about the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its vast commercial and financial networks?

In short, the maverick populist popped the cork off a bottle that had been shut tight for far too long. More and more opinion makers have been talking about corruption, and it is certain that more revelations will be made.

If the authorities try to cork the bottle again after the election, public will be frustrated, even outraged. The situation is similar to expectations when Mohammad Khatami was elected president. When the change his campaign promised failed to materialize, students rebelled and Tehran teetered on the edge of revolution.

Ahmadinejad's outburst might also create a lasting rift within the country's ruling elite. Iranians say no one has ever escaped Rafsanjani's wrath -- he has a reputation for relentlessly working to settle scores with his enemies.

Win Or Lose

If Ahmadinejad fails to win the election, he and his allies in the power structures could well become the targets of revenge.

If Ahmadinejad wins, Iran still will not be the same. The elite has been shaken and some members will likely be forced out. The economy will continue to decline and the president will have to rely increasingly on his friends in the security structures. Many Iranians already call him "The Dictator," but in a second term he might really show what a dictator is.

Westerners whose image of Iranians has been formed by watching Ahmadinejad on the world stage might be surprised to learn that Persians have a long tradition and culture of compromise and flexibility; they know how to kiss and make up.

But this time, perhaps too many glasses have been broken for things to be patched up again.

Mardo Soghom is deputy director of broadcast strategy and operations at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL