As the wildest campaign of the past 30 years winds down, Iranians are worried that their votes won't decide the result of the election Friday. Instead, they fear, the unelected officials at Iran's Interior Ministry in charge of counting those votes will sway the outcome.
With no reliable opinion polls, and published polls varying wildly, the candidates and their supporters have been hurling accusations of fraud at each other at a furious rate.
Supporters of "reformist" candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, with the backing of the Persian Service of Voice of America, claim to have discovered a secret "fatwa" or religious ruling issued by a radical cleric close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They contend that it encourages bureaucrats at the Interior Ministry to do "whatever it takes" to get their man elected.
Revolutionary Guards Gen. Sadeq Mahsouli runs the Interior Ministry, which runs the elections and counts the votes. Ahmadinejad appointed him, and Mahsouli is fiercely loyal to the president.
The "fatwa" was revealed in an open letter to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei from a pro-Mousavi group of Interior Ministry officials, who asked him to intervene to keep the election fair.
Of course, "fair" in Iran still means having to vote for candidates who have the approval of the Council of Guardians, the seat of clerical power, and who all support the doctrine of velayat-e faghih
, or absolute clerical rule.
While the supporters of different candidates clashed in the streets of Tehran on Wednesday evening, the supreme leader and the state-run media - and the Voice of America - urged Iranians to go to the polls no matter what. "Time to vote," headlined the Tehran Times.
Several times during this election campaign, Khamenei urged Iranians to vote for the candidate of their choice. (While pretending to keep his own choice secret, few observers believe there can be any doubt that the supreme leader prefers keeping Ahmadinejad in power).
Voting is the how the people "show their support" for the regime, Khamenei said.
The interior ministry says it has prepared ballot boxes to handle 46 million votes. It has set up more than 300 polling places for expatriate Iranians living in Iraq, and another 35 for Iranian-Americans.
Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated that anything over 40 million votes cast will "guarantee the survival of our regime for the next four years," while anything below 40 million votes will cast a pall on the regime's legitimacy.
Hard-line cleric Askar Oladi made the point explicitly. "All four major candidates are in line with the system," he told an election rally last month. "So we do not feel concerned about who will be our next president. We should make sure we can maximize the turnout because that high turnout can ensure and secure the future of our system."
[For more on the topic, read "'Reformist' Iranian Candidate Helped Found Hezbollah."
The only thing the regime fears is a massive boycott of the polls. And that is precisely what opposition groups - inside Iran, in the United States, and elsewhere - have been trying to organize.
Well-respected parties, including the Iran Nation's Party, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, Marze Por Gohar (Glorious Frontiers), and others have called for a boycott. But in recent weeks, editors and supervisors at the Voice of America's Persian Service have banned them from the airwaves.
"It would be one thing if they just closed their eyes," Roozbeh Farahanipour, a spokesman for Marze Por Gohar, told Newsmax. "But it's as if the State Department and Voice of America had become campaign advisers to Mousavi."
Some Iranians believe that has happened.
Saeed Behbehani, the owner of Mihan TV in suburban Washington, D.C., says he recently spoke with a well-known Iranian-American businessman who boasts of his ties to the State Department and who just returned from a trip to Dubai. The businessman said he met with Mousavi's campaign manager, Mehdi Khazali.
"The day after they met, VOA put Khazali on the air," Behbehani said.
Some of the VOA broadcasters themselves are upset at how slanted the U.S.-taxpayer funded network has become. "People have apologized to me for disinviting me," said Farahanipour, who was scheduled to talk about an election boycott on VOA last week. "They told me they were given instructions by their bosses to beat the drum of participation."
Rep. Gus Bilrakis, R-Fla., is circulating a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing concern that Iranian government officials or their proxies may be violating U.S. law by renting 35 polling locations across the United States and officiating at the balloting. "Any Iranian official allowed to travel to any of the 35 polling places throughout the United States would be violating the Immigration and Nationality Act, and, therefore subject to arrest," he wrote to Clinton.
"As such, I ask that you monitor these polling sites vigilantly and remove Iranian diplomats illegally traveling throughout the United States."
And then, there's the talk of a "green revolution" in Tehran, named for the omnipresent green scarves and banners that fill the air at Mousavi campaign events.
The National Endowment for Democracy has spent millions of dollars during the past decade promoting "color" revolutions in places such as Ukraine and Serbia, training political workers in modern communications and organizational techniques.
Some of that money appears to have made it into the hands of pro-Mousavi groups, who have ties to non-governmental organizations outside Iran that the National Endowment for Democracy funds.
Reza Saraj, a spokesman for the Revolutionary Guards, warned ominously on Monday that the Guards would intervene forcefully if they see the situation get out of hand.
"In all those countries where they have had 'color' revolutions, they didn't have a Revolutionary Guards Corps," he told the Fars News Agency. "We do."
If Mousavi is declared the winner in the election, the Guards will "storm Parliament and occupy it," he said. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly denied that there has been any attempt to influence Voice of America's coverage of the Iranian elections, insisting that there is a "firewall" to guarantee the "journalist independence" of Voice of America and other U.S. government broadcasting outlets.
"The Department of State respects the journalistic independence of [Broadcasting Board of Governors] journalists, including VOA," he said in response to a reporter's question at the daily briefing on Wednesday.
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