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Even Iran Can Change

An Iranian woman walks past campaign posters in Tehran on June 8.
An Iranian woman walks past campaign posters in Tehran on June 8.
Iran is always good for big surprises. Over the last four years, the international community has come to love to hate Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (sort of like former U.S. President George W. Bush).

But now it seems there's a real chance of Ahmadinejad becoming the first Iranian leader since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago to be turned out of office after just one term -- if turnout is high, that is (say more than 50 or even 60 percent), and if authorities do not resort to massive election fraud.

As recently as a month ago, the prevailing mood in Iran was apathy. "Why vote," many seemed to be asking, "when it doesn't change things anyway?"

But things have changed. All three opposing candidates -- former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai and the two reformists, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi -- have adopted positions that reject the status quo on the economy, governance, political freedom, and foreign policy. Ahmadinejad's calls for continuity are being shouted down from all sides.

The Others

Musavi, the strongest challenger, chose green as his campaign color. Iranian streets are festooned with green posters, scarves, and flags. Young supporters are wearing green wristbands and circulating political verse on social-networking websites like Facebook: "I'm green, so green/In spring and in winter."

Musavi has been merciless in his criticism of Ahmadinejad, blaming him for Iran's economic decline, political repression, and factional favoritism.

For his part, Karrubi speaks openly of corruption and illegal arrests. He calls for greater political freedom for the media, intellectuals, and ethnic minorities.

Rezai, described by many as a "pragmatic conservative" who could siphon away votes from Ahmadinejad's support base, has been quiet but resolute in his criticism of Ahmadinejad's handling of the economy and government.

For the first time ever, Iran held live televised debates between presidential candidates, a decision that could have serious consequences. Although often tame by Western standards, the debates openly showcased allegations against the government that have long been suppressed.

For the first time, people on national television spoke about the embezzlement of millions of dollars, about the killing of student protesters, about nepotism at the highest levels of government, and much more. Just a few months ago, any newspaper that dared to publish such things risked closure and arrests.

Among other things, the mere fact that debates were held has prompted some skeptical Iranians to believe that change is possible after all.

Turnout Key

Does all this mean that Ahmadinejad is on his way out? Mehrdad Mirdamadi, a political analyst for RFE/RL's Radio Farda, estimates that the president's solid conservative base represents about 30-35 percent of the electorate and comprises mostly working-class voters from rural areas and small towns; another 30 percent of voters are classified as unlikely to vote under almost any circumstances.

That leaves about 40 percent of the electorate in the category of "swimming voters," or people who vote on the basis of issues and personalities and whose positions shift as events unfold.

"The lower the turnout, the better for Ahmadinejad," Mirdamadi says. "Until the very last minute you can't tell whether the second group will vote or who the third group will trend toward."

Former Tehran Mayor Morteza Alviri recently told the Paris-based online newspaper "Rooz" that he thinks no candidate will win the majority required for outright victory in the first round on June 12. A runoff later this month is likely between the top two candidates, and most analysts have tipped Ahmadinejad and Musavi as the men best positioned to earn a spot in an eventual second round. A runoff could heighten public interest and turnout could be high as a result.

Surprise, Surprise?

Karrubi has created a public organization that he says is aimed at reducing the likelihood of electoral fraud, and Musavi has endorsed it. Musavi has warned the public and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that mobs of Ahmadinejad activists are working to rig the election and ensure themselves a victory.

A former parliament deputy who asked not to be identified told Radio Farda, "They can rig some 2 million to 3 million votes, but not more." With 46 million people eligible to vote, the deputy added, "a strong turnout would make that level of rigging useless."

There is still time for more of Iran's famous surprises, of course.

But for a long time, discussion of Iran has focused on two ideas: first, that all the candidates are part of one political and ideological system so it doesn't matter to the rest of the world who is elected; and, second, that Khamenei will ultimately decide who wins and who loses.

Both assumptions are true -- and not true.

Crucial Decision

Eight years of relatively moderate rule under President Mohammad Khatami did not -- and could not -- fundamentally change Iran's repressive theocratic system. But the economy improved, the social climate was more tolerable, and uranium enrichment appears to have been suspended.

Khamenei has been pretty clear in indicating his preference for Ahmadinejad.

But voters still have an opportunity to opt for someone else, including Musavi, who is clearly not Khamenei's choice.

If they do, it could change the political and social atmosphere in Iran -- and the country's international position. The Islamic republic wouldn't go away; but it would be a different place.

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting with RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL