Votes and Voices in a Tight Iranian Election

It's 30 minutes past midnight in Tehran, more than two hours after the polls closed, and Mir Hossein Mousavi has just announced that he will be the next president of Iran. A few minutes later, the Iranian News Agency, which is run by the allies of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declares he is the real winner. Soon after, amid allegations of tampering, Mousavi countered, saying "I'm the winner. Any other result means vote rigging." Somebody, it seems, knows something we don't.

The world will know for sure in a few hours, when the Ministry of the Interior announces the results Saturday morning, Tehran time. Something in the Tehran air suggests change is on the way, yet nothing is certain. Unusually for mid-June, it's raining in Tehran. But little has been usual in Iran in recent days. Tehran streets have been the scenes of unprecedented political gatherings. While the older—or milder—argued passionately but civilly in support of their candidates, mixed groups of boys and girls danced in the middle of the roads.

"I've never had so much fun in my life," said Nazli Hosseini, a 19-year-old graphics student, who was dancing with a group of boys and girls to the music of the Black Cats, an L.A.-based Iranian pop group. "A few years ago I couldn't even dream of doing this on the street. But now, thanks to the collective hatred of Mr. Ahmadinejad, we can dance till 4 in the morning. This means that Mr. Ahmadinejad and the illiterate people who support him cannot stop us anymore." Hosseini stopped, changed the music, and started again. "This one is in the honor of Mr. Mousavi," Hosseini shouted as she continued to shake as if her life depended on it.

A few steps away from the dancing crowd, under a giant poster of President Ahmadinejad, 27-year-old graduate student Javad Bagheri was in a heated debate with a group of Mousavi supporters. In Tehran, you would normally expect a devout Muslim like Bagheri, with a short beard and a white shirt hanging loose over his trousers, to drop everything to condemn the vice taking place in the street. But Bagheri was more concerned with trying to persuade Mousavi supporters to switch candidates. "Mr. Ahmadinejad is the only president who has visited even the smallest villages around the country. Feeling the pain of ordinary people," Bagheri pointed out to a Mousavi supporter who dismissed the president's provincial trips as a mere show.

Whatever the coming announcement is—a Mousavi victory, an Ahmadinejad resurgence, a second round of voting—something has changed in Iran over the course of this campaign. Iranians from unexpected quarters have started to express themselves, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic now face the uncomfortable reality that the people must be listened to.

The dancing and chanting on the streets this week translated into votes against Ahmadinejad, and nobody carries more responsibility for this explosion of negativity than Ahmadinejad himself. He came to power four years ago promising to "bring oil money to people's tables," meaning that he would distribute oil wealth equally among the people. He ran against one of the founders of the revolution, former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In that campaign, many people voted for Ahmadinejad simply to oppose Rafsanjani, seen as a symbol of the Islamic Republic's establishment. Blessed with rocketing oil revenue, Ahmadinejad managed to distribute wealth, but more money in hands of the people meant more inflation. Iranians who expected to become more prosperous found themselves poorer than ever.

Many of those interviewed in polling stations in central and northern Tehran today were first-time or infrequent voters. Most of them said they were voting for Mousavi, even though they admitted they didn't know the former prime minster that well. Their votes, they said, were against Ahmadinejad, rather than for Mousavi. Still, whatever becomes of Ahmadinejad's candidacy, the one person who should learn the greatest lesson in this political season is Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, gave his wholehearted support to Ahmadinejad last month. At the time, nobody expected the subdued and little-known Mousavi to excite the voters as he has. Over the past four years, Ahmadinejad has been seen as Khamenei's man, expressing Khamenei's wishes. Despite early reports that the Supreme Leader didn't approve of some of his president's extremist rhetoric, those same reports suggested that Khamenei believed that Ahmadinejad's aggressive demeanor was the only way to protect the Islamic Republic from foreign enemies, particularly the United States under the leadership of George W. Bush.

Sources close to Khamenei say that he is surprised by people's support for Mousavi, and they have tried to distance him from the president. When President Obama sent a message to the people and the government of the Islamic Republic, offering a new start in relations, Khamenei did not spurn the offer. So while Nazli Hosseini is dancing on the streets and Ahmadinejad supporters are getting nervous about losing their grip on power, the Supreme Leader, who has a reputation for being pragmatic, should be all ears. Like any other leader, Khamenei's main priority is to preserve his power; to do that, he has to listen to his people. And the people of Iran, silent for so long, have found their voice.