STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Iranians choose a president at the end of this week. Thousands poured into the streets of Tehran yesterday during election rallies for and against Iran's incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those who want to oust the president formed a human chain that extended from miles through central Tehran, and others, favoring Ahmadinejad, turned out for another rally in the capital. There was no mistaking the differences between the two. As NPR's Mike Shuster reports.

(Soundbite of rally)

MIKE SHUSTER: Their chant was simple and striking, Ahmadi bye, bye. Bye, bye to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president for the past four years. This was the message that demonstrators echoed along the 12 miles of Valiasr Street, Tehran's longest boulevard, from the bazaars of South Tehran to the upscale apartments in the north. The demonstrators 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 head scarf and otherwise ordinary western clothing. Their candidate is Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who has been out of politics for 20 years.

One young female student named Niloufer, she preferred to use only her first name, hopes the defeat of Ahmadinejad will mean a change in Iran's reputation around the world.

Ms. NILOUFER (Student): These years - the last four years our country has became just an enemy of for everyone, every country. And I think Mousavi can change it. He will change it. I'm sure.

SHUSTER: The anti-Ahmadinejad demonstrators danced in the streets for hours, excited about the possibility of replacing the president. This was a spontaneous outpouring of political activism. Another demonstrator, Seshan(ph) spent the past four years in Australia. He was lured back by the possibility of change in Iran, pinning his hopes as well on Mousavi to change Iran's foreign policies.

Mr. SESHAN: I can say, at least I'm sure about one thing, and that is the foreign policy of Mousavi has completely changed. And I think the view of Iran in the international communities will be improved, just say, very good I think.

SHUSTER: Yesterday's demonstration, followed by a few days of key(ph) 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 if ever appears on Iran's state-run television stations. Mousavi 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.

Mr. MIR-HOSSEIN MOUSAVI (Presidential Candidate, Iran) (Through Translator): 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 knockout the rival?

(Soundbite of crowd chanting)

SHUSTER: Ahmadinejad's supporters were out in force on Monday as well. Tens of thousands gathered at a huge prayer site in central Tehran, marching and chanting, 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.

President MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD (Iran): (Foreign Language spoken)

SHUSTER: 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, he said, and we can do it.

(Soundbite of Iranian song)

SHUSTER: There are deep divisions in Iranian society on all the key issues facing Iran. It's not that the short passionate presidential campaign has caused them, the campaign has served to make the divisions visible.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Tehran.

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