Iran's elections: The view from the highway

Updated:

QOM-TEHRAN HIGHWAY — Two friends drive at top speed towards Tehran, the Iranian capital, on the night of the 2009 Presidential elections. Both in their early 20s, they represent the Islamic Republic's so-called children of the revolution: Iranians under 30, an age group that makes up 70 percent of the population.

Both are fervent supporters of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who inherited the reformist mantle from former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and has squared up to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Islamic Republic's most crucial election.

Mousavi is the two-time former prime minister who ran Iran during its eight-year struggle with Iraq between 1981 and 1989. After four years of governance by the conservative Ahmadinejad, who has exuberantly accused his enemies in Iran and abroad of everything from corruption to covert operations and pushing the economy into an inflationary, unemployment-struck rut, Mousavi's arrival offered hope that he would restore lost social liberties domestically and present a friendlier face to the Obama administration in Washington.

"All countries act according to their interests," said the man in the driver's seat. "We're the only one who have a president who speaks according to his personal beliefs and ideology."

The exultation experienced by the two friends as they visited giddily pro-Mousavi polling stations in Tehran, overflowing with hopeful voters, ebbed the more they spoke to voters in heavily pro-Ahmadinejad Qom.

As the car eats up the kilometers on the straight highway connecting the two cities, they take calls on their cellphones from a network of professional contacts in a bid to make sense of the conflicting information in Iran's most polarized election yet.

"Fars (a conservative news-agency) has just issued a story congratulating Ahmadinejad," one comments disbelievingly. "But the polls have not even closed yet!"

"Kayhan (a conservative pro-government newspaper) has closed its front page with the report that Ahmadinejad won 60 percent," he adds after another phone call.

The driver is calling around his contacts in the Interior Ministry but drawing nothing. "Even those sitting over the voting booths don't know what's really going on," he said.

The frantic phone calls mounted as the car zipped past ageing Paykans, Iran's national car for more than 30 years.

"Voters put fire to the Ghaytariyyeh polling station and the police responded with tear gas," one reported.

"It looks like Tehran is Mousavi's and Ahmadinejad has Qom," came the latest update.

The statement is not quite true. Though downtown Tehran was paralysed by thousands of pro-Mousavi demonstrators on successive evenings last week, former mayor Ahmadinejad retains the loyalty of a large proportion of Iran's 72 million citizens. And while conservative Qom is naturally inclined towards supporting Ahmadinejad's hardline pronouncements, his recent accusations that several of the Islamic Republic's top mullahs are steeped in corruption damaged his popularity in the clerical city.

As the reality of Ahmadinejad's possible victory dawns on them, they settle into a stream of dark humor.

"If Ahmadinejad wins this then half the country will be political refugees tomorrow," sighed one.

"Even Afghanistan won't offer us visas," added the other, making a dig at Iran's poverty-struck neighboring country, millions of whose economic migrants floor Iran's cities.

"Results from 15 foreign countries in which Iranian expats voted are showing 82 percent support for Mousavi," one shouted excitedly, fondly regarding the Obama screensaver on his iPhone.

Another call came through. It seemed that Ahmadinejad would win the vote. "I can't believe it," said the man in the passenger seat, wondering at his compatriots' apparent fickleness in voting for Ahmadinejad after the frenzy of support shown towards Mousavi in the two weeks of polling. "Is it possible that they can change their minds in just a matter of seconds?"

(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Iran on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)

More GlobalPost dispatches from Iran:

Iran's elections: The view from the US

Young, Iranian and ready for change

Seven visas: Reporting from Iran