On a late-April trip to Iran, I had a hard time getting people to talk about the country's looming presidential race. My questions about the election, to be held Friday, were dismissed as irrelevant in a nation of apathetic voters who knew that real power was vested not in the president but in Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and a handful of clerics.
Most of the people I spoke to seemed resigned to the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And they felt that the election didn't really matter, given Khamenei's tightfisted control.
But when I returned to the country late last month, the mood had shifted dramatically.
The brief campaign season in Iran (officially two weeks, with another several weeks of unofficial activity preceding it) creates an "election fever." A nation starved for entertainment becomes obsessed with presidential politics as supporters of opposing candidates vie for attention in every public square and on every major boulevard.
So who will win? Predicting the outcome of an Iranian presidential contest has always been a fool's errand. Still, it's hard to ignore the "anyone but Ahmadinejad" mood on display in Iran's largest cities over the last few weeks. That sentiment would seem to favor the leading opposition figure, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who has leaned heavily on his endorsement by the still-popular former president, Mohammad Khatami.
In April, Khatami told me rather despondently in an interview that unless a mowj -- literally, a "wave" -- of support suddenly materialized for Mousavi, it would be difficult to wrest the presidency from Ahmadinejad. As it happened, I witnessed that wave as it occurred, at a kickoff rally for Mousavi on May 23 at the Azadi indoor sports stadium.
The event, which featured Khatami as well as Zahra Rahnavard, Mousavi's wife and the first presidential spouse to campaign for her husband, drew an overflowing and enthusiastic crowd that seemed eager for change.
Ahmadinejad came to office promising to eliminate corruption and bring Iran's oil wealth to ordinary citizens. But his economic policies have ultimately benefited very few, and Iran's economy is stagnant. Unemployment remains high, and the inflation rate is running close to a staggering 30% a year.
Mousavi, who has been out of politics for nearly two decades, is relying on his reputation as a skilled manager when he served as prime minister during the years of the Iran-Iraq war. He has called for a more conciliatory foreign policy than Ahmadinejad, with the hope of getting foreign sanctions lifted. On the economy -- the No. 1 issue in the minds of voters -- he has said very little other than promising to appoint competent professionals to his Cabinet, a not-so-veiled jab at Ahmadinejad, who has had to frequently shuffle his Cabinet amid charges of incompetence.
But mowj or no mowj, the longest shadow in Iraq continues to be cast by Khamenei, even though he has pledged impartiality in the election. While most Iranians believe that Khamenei would like to see Ahmadinejad reelected, one hears every possible political theory in Tehran these days. One faction holds that the supreme leader encouraged conservative Mohsen Rezai's candidacy because he was disillusioned with Ahmadinejad. There are even quiet suggestions that Ahmadinejad is Israel's preferred candidate, for who better than him to reinforce the idea that Iran presents an existential threat to the Jewish state?
Voters worry, not without reason, that the balloting will be corrupt. A former basij (militia volunteer) who counted ballots in the last election admitted to me in Tehran that, during that vote, he had personally filled out 300 blank ballots for Ahmadinejad during the count. (Voters often cast blank ballots in Iran as a form of protest.) But this time, he believes, blank ballots that fall into the hands of vote-counting basij are more likely to be filled in for Mousavi.
Friday's election, however, may not produce a final winner. If no candidate among the field of four gets a majority of the votes, a runoff between the top two vote-getters (almost certainly Ahmadinejad and Mousavi) will be held June 19.
Whatever the outcome, the elections have sparked a huge change in attitude among Iranians, who in recent weeks have rejected the idea that elections don't matter. Iranian voters now talk about how life was very different during Khatami's presidency than during Ahmadinejad's. This, they say, demonstrates that although a president is subject to the whims and dictates of the grand ayatollah, he too is influenced by public opinion and can be swayed slightly to either the right or the left.
A moment of hope has gripped the country. And for many, that hope includes the possibility that Iran will become less isolated from the West. Last month, I stopped on a street in downtown Tehran to watch some former Revolutionary Guards who were putting up a campaign billboard for an opposition candidate. They had nothing but vitriol for Ahmadinejad (once the darling of the Guards). One of them asked me where I lived. When I told him New York, he smiled: "Inshallah [God willing], this time next year the American Embassy will be open!"
If the Guards, protectors of the revolution and the bete noir of successive U.S. administrations, foresee good relations with the Great Satan, then change is definitely in the air.