As I disembarked from my flight at Tehran I recalled my previous visit to Iran in 2000, when Iranian immigration officials at Mehrabad Airport were rather frosty. Entering Iran on this occasion proved far more straightforward than that visit, as the immigration official handed back my passport with a smile and wished me a pleasant stay.
My passport control experience indicated that authorities wanted to foster a positive image of Iran among foreigners, trying to cast it as just another normal state. Such an image, however, dissipated almost as soon as I left the airport. Symptoms of discontent were plainly evident everywhere I looked, just as they were during my 2000 visit. Only this time, the atmosphere seemed grimmer. In 2000, popular anger seemed somewhat tempered by the hope that President Mohammad Khatami's reformist administration would make social and economic changes. During my return visit, after five years of political gridlock and no substantive change, hope had been replaced by deep cynicism.
I arrived in Tehran three weeks before the first round of the presidential election, and I was immediately struck by the profound sense of apathy that pervaded the population. Accordingly, it did not come as a shock to me that a large share of the population did not cast ballots in the June 17 vote. The sense of apathy was especially strong among reform-minded Iranians, and this severely damaged the electoral prospects of the leading reformist candidate Mustafa Moin, who finished a distant fifth in the race. In Tehran's neighborhoods -- as well as in Isfahan and the towns along the Caspian coast where I spent most of my visit -- many people repeated the same message to me: why vote?
Although by Middle East standards Iranians have enjoyed a relatively high degree of representative government, even the most unpretentious voter readily acknowledged that Iranian democracy is largely a sham. Unelected institutions including the office of the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the judiciary and the security services are the true centers of power in Iran. The presidency, as Khatami's eight-year tenure underscores, is powerless to implement its agenda in the face of opposition from unelected institutions. Indeed, the experience of the Khatami era has prompted many Iranians to conclude that the regime is ideologically bankrupt. People by and large do not believe that they live in a representative democratic system.
Given the current degree of apathy, it was interesting the results of the June 17 voting generated the degree of havoc and consternation that they did. One might have expected Iranians to simply accept the heavy-handed intervention by hard-line elements in order to secure a place for their preferred candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran in the June 24 run-off against Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Given the outcry surrounding the June 17 results, one can conclude that reform-leaning Iranians haven't lost all interest in the political process. Indeed, the hardliners' blatant transgressions against the accepted norms of political behavior may well motivate a significant number of reform supporters, who didn't vote during the first round, to cast ballots in the run-off.
Turnout during the June 17 first round of the presidential vote was officially listed as 63 percent. A higher percentage of Iranians may well show up at polling places on June 24. Two factors seem to portend a higher turnout. First, there appeared to be a growing realization among reform supporters that a boycott strategy is a misguided form of protest. So far, the boycott strategy has only abetted the implementation of the conservatives' retrograde agenda. Second, the June 17 election results indicated that a majority of Iranians whether reformist or conservative in orientation favored radical change from the status quo.
Both candidates have promised radical reform: Rafsanjani has promised to push back state interference in social life while vowing to put privatization at the heart of his economic agenda. In addition, he would seek ways to re-establish ties with the United States, a monumental task but one that has evidently the backing of a majority of Iranians. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Ahmadinejad's ultra-conservative agenda would seek overhaul the way the country's oil wealth is distributed. The Islamist-Socialist tenets that shape his political program are particularly appealing to the urban poor and those in rural areas who feel left behind in economic terms.
Many people seem ready to vote for the candidate who offers the best chance at breaking the existing political impasse and ending the stagnation that has characterized the Khatami era. A 27-year old man in Tehran, working for a company that imports US shoes to Iran via Dubai, told me that his intention to vote for Ahmadinejad rested on a belief that once the presidency comes under hard-line control, the regime would have no one else to blame for all the failings of the state. It sounded like an ultimatum to the hardliners: put your money where your mouth is.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the June 24 run-off will be to see if reformists set aside their cynicism and turn out to vote, striving to protect the cherished few reforms that they have managed to enact since Khatami won his first term in office in 1997. It will also be curious to see how the hardliners respond, if the reformists turn out in large numbers. This election has the potential to fundamentally alter Iran's political calculus.
Alex Vatanka is a political analyst based in London.