Inside Tehran: Practicing Democracy, Iran Style

07/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the eve of Iran's presidential election, the Islamic state shut off the text messaging services of all cell phones, and as I am writing this it is still impossible to text someone in Iran. Also, state-imposed "parasite" signals have been reported to be interfering with satellite TV channels particularly BBC Persian and VOA Farsi. The Iranian regime apparently has turned the country into a huge closed military zone. This odd situation is a good example of the Iranian style of democracy. Despite all the shortcomings though, today is a big day for democracy in Iran. The country is seeing record numbers of people stand in lines for hours to cast their vote for president. Here I report my personal account of this historical day:

Today I went to a mosque to cast my vote. The pile of shoes at the entrance indicated a large crowd inside (Muslims are not supposed to enter holy places with their shoes on). Amidst the rising heat, rotating ceiling fans wreaked havoc with the hems of the black chadors of the women standing in one line, alongside which men with visibly damp armpits formed a separate queue. Every now and then a surge of murmurs swept the interior of the mosque and then subsided.

"Would someone please open the window?"

A voice from the women's line piped up. A young man struggled with the handle of the rusty window and opened it. He was Amin, a friend. He noticed me in the crowd.

"How are you doing?" He asked.

"Cut the formalities! Who are you going to vote for?" I asked abruptly.

"Rezaii. He was the head of the Revolutionary Guards for so many years. He knows how to get us out of this mess."

Amin referred to the pragmatic-conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaii who is widely believed to have entered the race in order to cut back on Ahmadinejad's conservative votes. He owns the news website Tabnak. Its predecessor, Baztab, was closed down by Ahmadinejad's government for revealing 'undesirable' information.

"Do you think he can actually win?" I replied.

Here a man standing behind us interjected: "Of course not. But he's the best one among them all. All candidates proved filthy liars and corrupt in the debates."

The man seemed to have a very critical view of the debates. He probably had taken every candidate at his word and thus had come to this cynical conclusion. Of course he was not the only one who felt disillusioned with the Islamic system. For 30 years the Islamic Republic via its state-run TV has tried to instill the illusion of a perfect harmony among its loyal politicians. Khamenei, our Supreme Leader once said:

"We don't have good or bad choices in the Islamic state. These are for Western democracies. Here, all candidates have been approved. They all deserve being elected. The decision Iranians have to make is to choose the best among the good."

The televised vitriolic debates, however, gave a far different impression. In a short span of time the debaters crossed a slew of conventional redlines. Ahmadinejad accused powerful clerics - pillars of the Islamic Revolution, one could say - and their sons of being financially corrupt. Other candidates explicitly called Ahmadinejad a liar and a populist playing with figures and statistics.

Not surprisingly, many Iranians were shocked. My aunt, a teacher, turned red and almost cried in one of these debates. She could never imagine that there could be corrupt politicians in the Islamic Republic.

In the debates, Rezaii was the only candidate who tried not to get on Ahmadinejad's worst side. Faced with Ahmadinejad's financial graphs and histograms, he restrained himself from declaring Ahmadinejad an all-out liar. But even he was not spared from the incumbent president's attacks. Throughout the debate, Ahmadinejad addressed him condescendingly, forcing Rezaii to exclaim at the end that Ahmadinejad's main problem was that he assumed he was an expert in every field.

Ahmadinejad's unpleasant demeanor seems to have repelled many Iranians. My parents, while pro-Ahmadinejad, have said frequently that they would have voted for Rezaii in other circumstances. Many Iranians call Ahmadinejad a liar. An ad for Moussavi, Ahmadinejad's main challenger, reads: "On Friday, Pinocchio will be punished." It doesn't bode well for the Islamic state, which enforces strict moral laws on its subjects, that its head of government should be epitomized with mendacity.

The debates were but one of the unique aspects of this presidential election. There have never been so many text messages, blogs, and websites commenting on an election. Nor has there ever been such popular passion. At night, the honking of car horns in political solidarity has become a cacophony!

As I left the mosque after voting and searched for my sandals amidst the pile of shoes, I tried to send a text-message to a friend. It went nowhere. I had forgotten that the Islamic state had disabled the text-messaging services. I had forgotten that Iran has a far way to go before becoming a true democracy.