Iranians head to the polls today in a close campaign that, for the restrictive Islamic regime, has been rattled by one surprising element: a woman.
Zahra Rahnavard will not be on the ballot, but the 64-year-old sculptor, political scientist, and one-time chancellor of al-Zahra University, a school for women in Tehran, has been the major draw on the campaign trail during the final days before today's presidential election.
Rahnavard is the wife of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, who heads into today's election with 56 percent voter approval against current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's 42 percent. Since Iran began holding presidential elections, no sitting president has faced such formidable opposition-or lost.
Mousavi is seen by many as a lackluster politician who served as president in the early days following Iran's 1979 revolution and has made a political comeback by calling for reforms. That perception changed when his wife began campaigning alongside him and calling more boldly for significant changes in Iran, particularly for women. The almost youthful-looking Rahnavard, who is a grandmother, introduces her husband at rallies wearing floral headscarves and a black chador hanging loosely open to reveal colorful clothing beneath. She and her husband hold hands, sparking comparisons to the Obamas.
But it's Rahnavard's message that electrifies. She has called for equal treatment of women. (Iranian women may vote but cannot own property or teach even young boys, and in the eyes of the courts are equal to half a man.) When the president in a debate suggested she had gained her academic credentials through political patronage, Rahnavard called a press conference and spoke nonstop for 90 minutes: "He wanted to destroy his rival through lies," she said, and vowed to sue Ahmadinejad if he did not publicly apologize.
At one campaign rally Rahnavard drew over 15,000 supporters-mostly young, urban Iranians unhappy with the street presence of Ahmadinejad's "morality police" and eager for lessening restrictions as the country enters its third decade as a thoroughgoing Islamic republic. According to The Times of London, she told the crowd, "You're here because you don't want any more dictatorship. . . . You're here because you hate fanaticism, because you dream of a free Iran, because you dream of a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world."
Ahmadinejad is in trouble with voters because of Iran's faltering economy, his ruthless crackdowns, and what Farideh Farhi, professor of political science at the University of Hawaii, calls his "bombastic foreign policy style." This despite the recent softening from the United States: Former President George W. Bush famously named Iran part of an "axis of evil" for its support of terrorism and nuclear ambitions; but the Obama administration, eager to open negotiations with Iran, in recent weeks sparked a controversy by ordering its embassies around the world to invite Iranian diplomats to Fourth of July celebrations.
In Iran many voters aren't so eager for détente. Mousavi supporters have formed miles-long human chains in the streets of Tehran and packed out his appearances in the final days of the campaign. At one football stadium, thousands chanted "death to the government" and "death to the dictators" while waving Mousavi posters and his trademark green banners in a rare show of public opposition edging on frenzy.
Seventy-five percent of Iranians are under age 30, and young voters have voiced growing dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad. Judging by campaign interest, voter turnout may be high for presidential elections normally regarded as rigged with many Iranians choosing instead to stay home. High turnout could make it more difficult for Ahmadinejad to hijack votes, as he was accused of doing in 2005.
In addition to Mousavi, Ahmadinejad faces two other contenders: Medhi Karroubi, a former speaker of parliament, and Mohsen Rezai, a hardliner and former head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Rezai is one of five Iranians wanted by Argentine authorities and Interpol in connection with a 1994 suicide bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
In fact, none of Ahmadinejad's opponents are likely to be regarded as true reformers by outsiders. All support the Islamic regime (none are campaigning to reduce Iran's nuclear program, for instance) and are running for office at the pleasure of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini. If no candidate wins at least 50 percent of the vote a runoff election will be scheduled June 19.