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Iran Votes

By Times of London, Times Online - June 12, 2009

No Iranian election in the 30 years since the 1979 revolution has been more open, more hard-fought and more crucial in determining the country's future than the presidential contest taking place today. On its outcome depends not only the tenor and direction of an Islamist revolution that has taken the country into puritanical and intolerant zealotry at home and isolation abroad. America and its Western allies are also waiting to see whether the nuclear stand-off can be resolved by talks, whether Tehran will continue to export terrorism and threaten its Arab neighbours and Israel and whether Iran's ageing energy infrastructure will be modernised.

The election has polarised Iranian society to a degree unthinkable a decade ago. Since his surprise victory four years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has infuriated reformers and galvanised hardliners in equal measure. Most educated Iranians and millions of women have been dismayed by his crude rhetoric, anti-Semitic diatribes, provocative antics abroad and repressive insistence on a narrow, misogynist version of Islam at home. To the urban poor and the rural masses, however, he is seen as modest, honest, a champion of the dispossessed, ready to stand up against the corrupt clerical establishment.

Until recently, it seemed that Mr Ahmadinejad was assured of victory. He is a wily politician, skilled at exploiting nationalist feeling. He has the all-important support of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the zealous cohorts of the religious police and the Revolutionary Guards. And he exploited the nuclear issue and fanned the hostility of Israel and the West to portray Iran as a country still threatened by the “Great Satan”. His opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, posed little threat: a colourless former Prime Minister, who would change neither Iran's nuclear policy nor its Islamist orientation, who does not represent the aspirations of pro-Western liberals or the impatience of the young and whose main virtue is that he is not Mr Ahmadinejad.

Much has changed in the past month. Iran's democracy has proved more resilient and responsive than the manipulative and conservative Guardian Council anticipated. Debates on television have been freewheeling and extraordinarily revealing, proving at least that democracy is compatible with Muslim theology. Mr Mousavi has accused his opponent of lying, of blackening Iran's reputation abroad and fiddling the statistics to conceal his failures at home. Chronic unemployment and a 24 per cent inflation rate have given him bite. Above all, hundreds of thousands of young supporters - a “green” revolution comparable to the movements that challenged rulers in former Soviet republics - have poured on to the streets, men and women mingling openly and voicing years of pent-up anger at clerical hypocrisy and social repression.

Free expression breeds an appetite for more expression. Whoever wins will have to contend with a more assertive younger generation. That could mean a new wave of repression later, as embattled hardliners fight to retain control. It does not signal any easing in relations with America: Iran has still to respond to the Obama initiatives that have so undercut Mr Ahmadinejad. The arbiter of policy remains Ayatollah Khamenei. But this election may be the first step forcing Iran out of its paranoid and self-imposed isolation.

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