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Virtual Election Gives Iranians Chance To Vote For Unofficial Candidates

A man registers for the Iran presidential election at the Interior Ministry in Tehran in May. He was one of hundreds who failed to make it through the strict vetting process. Now, a new Internet initiative aims to give voters more choice in a virtual online election.
Few would say that Iran's presidential election offers a rich variety of candidates and positions.

That's because the candidates were carefully vetted ahead of the vote by the regime itself. All eight who passed had to demonstrate the highest loyalty to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his vision of national priorities.

But on June 7 a group of Internet activists hopes to give Iranian voters a taste of what an open election feels like by launching an alternative election featuring 20 candidates. The candidates not only include the officially approved eight, but 12 more, ranging from people who failed the official vetting process to reformist leaders and political prisoners.

The alternative online vote, dubbed "We Choose -- Iran Free Elections," concludes on June 13 with an announcement of its results, one day before Iran's official June 14 election is held.

The chairman of the international committee heading the project is Russian chess grandmaster and human rights activist Garry Kasparov. According to him, the goal is to provide a free and fair vote in Iran.

"Iranian elections today are just a farce, since many candidates, real candidates, have been simply washed away by the ayatollah's committee, by Khamenei and his cronies," he says. "So, if we want to understand the real opinion of the Iranian people we should give them an alternative platform to vote and to express their preferences."

Technology Developed In Russia

Kasparov explains how the project uses technology that was first applied successfully in an online election of opposition leaders in Russia last year.

"I have been talking to my friends in Russia for two years about developing such a system and earlier this year we got contacted by people who are active in the Iranian opposition just to build connections, because I am a great believer that, while dictators from all the corners have been united, it is very important for dissidents to also combine forces."
Russian chess grandmaster and human rights activist Garry Kasparov
Russian chess grandmaster and human rights activist Garry Kasparov

In Russia's virtual vote, more than 80,000 people voted online to choose leaders for the opposition movement, an exercise in democracy that otherwise would not have been possible.

Two of the names on the Iran Free Elections list of candidates were disqualified from running in the June 14 poll.

One is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose disqualification from Iran's upcoming election was widely reported to reflect Khamenei's determination to prevent a challenger to the establishment from winning.

The second is Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, disqualified in part because he is a close ally of current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who openly feuded with Khamenei's camp.

Also on the candidate list are two of Iran's best-known reformist leaders, Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Musavi. Both have been under house arrest for more than two years over their support of the Green Movement protests that followed Iran's last presidential election in 2009.

Included, too, are Reza Pahlavi, the son of Iran's last shah, and Maryam Rajavi, president of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the political wing of the People's Mujahedin Organization of Iran. Both live outside Iran.

Anonymity Issues

Organizers believe the wide variety of candidates will create interest in the virtual poll. But they recognize that many people inside Iran may be afraid to take part.

Consequently, the system has been designed to protect voters' anonymity.

"Our hope is to make them sure they are safe and secure with participation in the project," says Nima Tamaddon, a U.S. journalist who is taking part in the project. "There is an innovative, two-step authentication system that has been developed since the first time this platform was tested in Russia in October last year. We adapted the system for the difficulties of reaching Iranian people inside the country, so I think they can trust the system."

Here is how it works: voters access the server, then submit a phone number within Iran where they can receive an SMS or automated phone call. The message they receive contains a phrase that they can use as a password when casting their vote.

To guard the user from being detected when he receives the password, the password phrase is sent simultaneously to his and several random numbers. At the same time, the password itself is an innocent advertising phrase whose wording is not incriminating.

The organizers are promoting the virtual vote in Iran through social media and grassroots networks, as well as through Persian-language foreign broadcasting channels. But they hope that the candidates themselves will also seek to mobilize their supporters to participate in order to show that if the June 14 Iranian election was open, they could win a substantial proportion of the vote.

The virtual vote is funded by private donations. The international committee overseeing it includes prominent Iranian-American space scientist Firouz Naderi, former Canadian Attorney-General Irwin Cotler, U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama, U.S. democracy scholar Larry Diamond, and successful Iranian-American businesswoman Nazie Eftekhari, among others.