In Final Days, Iran's Presidential Race Heats Up

Supporters of Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad i i

hide captionSupporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shout slogans in solidarity with the Islamic republic's incumbent president and wave national flags during an electoral campaign rally in Tehran on June 8.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Supporters of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shout slogans in solidarity with the Islamic republic's incumbent president and wave national flags during an electoral campaign rally in Tehran on June 8.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

The chant in the streets of Tehran was simple and striking: Amadi bye-bye.

Goodbye to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president for the past four years, who is making a bid for reelection Friday in national balloting.

The refrain from demonstrators echoed along the 12 miles of Vali Asr Street, Tehran's longest boulevard, from the bazaars of south Tehran to the upscale apartments in the north. Opponents of Ahmadinejad formed a human chain to show their support for his chief rival and pro-reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Thousands of Iranians poured into the streets of the capital Monday to participate in election rallies both for and against Ahmadinejad.

The campaign has made visible the divisions in Iran, on key issues facing the country and the social differences of its political factions. There are no reliable polls in Iran, but both sides predict a close race.

A Pivotal Televised Debate?

The demonstrations followed last week's televised debate between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, which may have been the turning point of the campaign. Iranian viewers saw the kind of aggressive, often angry, political exchange that rarely appears on Iran's state-run television stations.

Mousavi, a former prime minister who has been out of politics for 20 years, tore into Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel, Holocaust-denial rhetoric, and his economic policies, which have left Iran with 25 percent inflation and high unemployment.

And Mousavi directly accused Ahmadinejad of making false accusations against him and his supporters.

"Why are you telling lies? Why are you giving people wrong information? Is this to the country's benefit? Is it correct to lie to people in order to remain in a post, or capture a position or knock out the rival?" he asked.

Mousavi Supporters Want Change

The demonstrators out on Monday for Mousavi were mostly young, a clear indication that this election has energized the younger generation, which has been soured on politics in recent years.

Women and men were represented equally, with women in headscarves and otherwise ordinary Western clothing.

One young female student named Niloofar, who preferred to use only her first name when talking to a Western journalist, hopes that the defeat of Ahmadinejad would mean a change in Iran's reputation around the world.

"These years, the last four years, our country has become just an enemy for everyone, every country," she said. "And I think Mousavi can change it. He will change it, I am sure."

In a spontaneous outpouring of political activism, the anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrators danced in the streets for hours, excited about the possibility of replacing the president.

Another demonstrator Sassan spent the past four years in Australia. He was lured back by the possibility of change in Iran, pinning his hopes on Mousavi to change Iran's foreign policies.

"I can say at least I am sure about one thing. And that is the foreign policy of Mousavi is completely changed. And I think the view of Iran in the international community will be improved I can say, very good I think," he said.

Incumbent's Backers Older, Conservative

Ahmadinejad's supporters were out in force on Monday, too. Tens of thousands gathered at a huge prayer site in central Tehran, marching and chanting — and mocking the Mousavi forces.

This crowd was much older, made up mostly of men, with the women in attendance wearing the chador covering them in black from head to toe.

It was a noticeably poorer crowd, many men in dusty, poorly fitting suits. Many had been bussed in from neighborhoods around the city.

In his debate with Mousavi a few days ago, Ahmadinejad sounded a familiar theme, that Iran can be a great country only with his leadership.

"Iran must be the best country in the world, and the most advanced country," the president said. "It can have a key and determining role in the way the world is managed. It can. This is our objective and we can do it."

Two other contenders are running for president: former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi, who is considered a moderate, and conservative Mohsen Rezaei, a former commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

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