May 23rd: Tehran's Azadi Indoor Stadium, 20 days before the election. The press had difficulty getting in the gates. "All full," the guards kept telling us. And full it was, overflowing in fact, for a Mir Hossein Mousavi campaign rally. Mousavi wasn't even there. Instead, the rally featured former President Mohammad Khatami and Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, and the eager crowd numbered more than 20,000. I couldn't make my way to the VIP section, and I didn't want to. I was happy to be crushed among the thousands of cheering-- ecstatic even--Iranians who gave birth to the "green wave."
It was not supposed to end like this. After all, this is why Khatami, the only early favorite to defeat Ahmadinejad at the polls on June 12, dropped out of the presidential race, isn't it? That's what we all assumed in the weeks and days leading up to 6/12. Yes, 6/12. Khatami would never be allowed to win. Kayhan, Iran's conservative daily and the Supreme Leader's mouthpiece, said as much, even threatening him, in a thinly veiled editorial, with assassination.
Mir Hossein Mousavi, we thought, posed no such threat to the conservatives-- the landlords, let's call them. His chances of winning weren't exactly good, even as recently as six weeks before the election. "If the turnout is in the twenty-five-million range, we will be guests of Mr. Ahmadinejad for another four years." That was Sadegh Kharrazi--former ambassador to Paris, deputy foreign minister, and an influential reformist who also has close ties to the Supreme Leader--speaking at the end of April. It was another late-night salon at his house, filled with photos of himself with Ayatollah Khamenei. "Ahmadinejad has ten to twelve million votes," he said, a number echoed by virtually everyone I spoke to, "and he'll win if the turnout is low." He wasn't being pessimistic--just realistic. I was a realist then, too.
The Mousavi campaign's early strategy, one of getting out the vote to counter Ahmadinejad's solid base, raised no eyebrows, but it began to pay dividends, and a fever for the democratic process started to afflict many previously apathetic Iranians. "If the majority doesn't vote, the minority rules," proclaimed billboards, rather more poetically in Persian, that I saw all over town at the end of May. Ayatollah Rafsanjani had paid for that one, his image next to the words. If the fever held, there would be enough votes to force a second-round runoff. Mousavi was going to win any runoff, and win big. Ahmadinejad might have his ten to twelve million, but he couldn't possibly defeat Mousavi if the entire opposition coalesced around one candidate. It wasn't as if Ahmadinejad's campaign didn't know this. Its strategy from the start had been to win outright in the first round, but his campaign was anemic compared to Mousavi's, which grew stronger by the rally, with the ever-popular Khatami front and center much of the time. I almost went with Khatami to Ahvaz, on May 30, when the plane he was to have caught back to Tehran was discovered to have a bomb aboard. The landlords weren't whispering anymore. They had never seriously fought this kind of battle before. "If it's over thirty million, [we win]," Khatami had said to me in mid-May over tea in his office in a villa in Jamaran, Ayatollah Khomeini's old compound in North Tehran. "Are you staying for the election?" he asked me. "No, but I'll come back for the second round," I told him. "There won't be a second round; we will win outright on June 12." Strong words coming from a cautious man two weeks before the election.
And, based on what I had seen in Iran over the last month, maybe Khatami was right. I tried, really tried, to find where Ahmadinejad's support was going to come from if he was going to add to his base, to defeat three challengers who were all gaining popularity. Outside of Tehran? Whether on the road, or in truck stops, cafes, and other cities, I saw more enthusiasm for the opposition than for the president, which surprised me. Even in south Tehran, his supposed base in the capital, I found Ahmadinejad detractors. Not that Ahmadinejad didn't have supporters everywhere. It was just that they seemed to be apathetic. Perhaps that's the lot of an incumbent candidate steering a discontented nation. Not one Ahmadinejad supporter tried to convert me to their cause, or even bothered to make a compelling case. Maybe that's why the twelve million or so mythical Iranians who braved long lines, thunderstorms, and 100-degree-plus temperatures to vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad didn't celebrate on the streets when their man won his landslide. Even the ten or twelve million who probably did vote for him were reluctant to come out and cheer, at least until they were asked, two days later. And, even then, the photo of his victory rally was clumsily photoshopped, presumably by Mahmoud's experts, to illustrate a sea of Iranians for Ahmadinejad where there was only a pond.
Nearly 40 million voted in Iran's presidential election, 63 percent for the sitting president, according to his very own Interior Ministry. It took a day or so, but that's when it struck me and all the other dismayed Iranians: Of course, they were never going let anyone but Ahmadinejad win. That's why his campaign was anemic, that's why he didn't seem to care that his challengers were gaining on him. This had never happened before. Iranian elections have always been generally fair.
Thirty years have passed since the revolution, exactly 30 years, and Iranians aren't mad that Ahmadinejad won reelection. They're mad that the one thing--the one and only element of democracy--they had left, their vote, is now meaningless. Stop looking at Tehran, the government keeps saying, you're misreading the country. You in the West don't understand Iran, it bleats; you don't know that Ahmadinejad really did have all the support of the country. It's only the Westernized elite in Tehran who are unhappy, and the West and Zionists (always the Zionists) are stirring things up. Iran's very own Useful Idiots in the West parrot their line, lending credence to outdated polls, to mathematical analyses that tell Iranians who are giving their lives for the right to a legitimate vote that they are dying for a lie. OK, then how about Shiraz, how about Isfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, all the places we know people don't believe you, where people have died because they don't believe you? These Iranians didn't start by protesting the regime, the nezam, as the Supreme Leader called it; they weren't protesting anything but for their right to their vote. Mir Hossein Mousavi wasn't waging a campaign to bring down the nezam. He only wanted to be a better president than Ahmadinejad, to secure renters' rights in a nation of landlords, and that wasn't a crime until now.
What started out as an outpouring of anger has turned into a battle royale for the soul of a nation. Or a battle to allow the nation a soul. What delicious irony that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founder of the nezam, a man Iranians couldn't bring themselves to vote for the last time, would be on the protestors' side. Who would have thought that Ali Larijani, speaker of Parliament, obedient son of the Revolution, and close confidant of the Supreme Leader, would suggest, in contradiction of his mentor, that the Guardian Council, which is supposed to be checking, has erred? Iran's leadership cracked, and the fissures are widening. The landlords' security teams might quell the protests, life may return to something resembling normal. The landlords still have a large portion of the population behind them, the ten to twelve million, maybe more, plus all the guns. (If the West, or Iranians in opposition movements abroad, try to hijack the protests for their own causes, they'll have more, much more.) And Mousavi, the unlikely hero of 6/12, may or may not continue the fight. But Iranians won't forget. They won't forget the dead, the prisoners, and the brutality of their landlords. At a pre-election press conference that I heard about, one Mousavi campaign manager was asked about the brutality of his nezam, way back, when he was prime minister in the 1980s. The staffer answered, "We were all Ahmadinejads then." After 6/12, we Iranians are all Mousavis now, even those who voted for Ahmadinejad, whether they know it yet or not.
Hooman Majd is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ.