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Iran Set For Friday's Presidential Election

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. The streets of Tehran are quiet for the first time in days. This is supposed to be a quiet day of reflection before a presidential election tomorrow. The race has come down to two leading candidates. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seeking reelection. He's the conservative president famous in the West for his harsh remarks about Israel and the United States.

His leading challenger is a former Iranian prime minister. And that challenger's campaign drew giant crowds to the streets of the capital and other major cities the last several days. NPR's Mike Shuster has been watching those big rallies and he's on the line from Tehran.

Hi, Mike.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Have you, in your several years of covering Iran, ever seen anything quite like the demonstrations of the last several days?

SHUSTER: No, I haven't. In fact, I haven't hardly seen any demonstrations of any size in Iran over the past five years, which is the period of time that I've been coming here regularly. The situation in the streets has been simply out of control.

The demonstrations have been enormous. The level of emotion has been incredibly intense. Thousands of people have been demonstrating day and night, never stopping, in effect - at least over the last few days since I got here on the weekend. They are mostly the forces in favor of Mousavi, the challenger. Although President Ahmadinejad has been able to muster significantly large crowds.

And the other thing that's quite amazing, Steve, is that there's no police presence at all. In effect, the local government has lost control of the streets in Tehran and other cities as well. The police are not in evidence. And essentially it's the young people and women who have taken over Tehran and are demonstrating in favor of Mousavi and change in Iran.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you mention women. We're hearing elsewhere on the program from a women's rights activist about the role of women in this campaign. I'm curious, Mike, if when you talk to these demonstrators and people at political rallies, if you find people who are themselves surprised that so many of them have showed up on the streets.

SHUSTER: I think that they are, almost down to the last person, astounded by what they're participating in. I think none of them ever thought that this would grow into a movement and it would be as large as it's been.

And the other thing that's really extraordinary is what they say about Ahmadinejad in public. Over the past five years you haven't heard people in public say even moderately critical things, let alone hostile things. But these crowds are chanting with a kind of vitriol and venom against Ahmadinejad that's amazing, calling him a liar, calling him a dictator. It shows the depth of how fed up many people are in Iran with his policies over the past four years.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Mike Shuster in Tehran, where tomorrow is voting day. And Mike, will it be a fair election?

SHUSTER: It's a really big question, Steve. For one thing, the interior ministry controls the ballot counting. And the interior ministry is in Ahmadinejad's government.

Another example: last night Ahmadinejad was given a half hour of free TV time because the Iranian Broadcasting Company thought he was unfairly treated by his rivals during the debates here. There's opportunities for cheating everywhere. And everyone - many people suspect that there could be cheating, suspect that there was cheating in the last election four years ago.

Much of the situation will depend on the turnout. If the turnout is really large and there's a big gap between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, with Mousavi in the lead, it's unlikely that they'll be able to manipulate the outcome.

INSKEEP: Well, Mike, if President Ahmadinejad manages to keep his job, whether it's unfairly or fairly for that matter, what happens to all those people who've turned out and demonstrated and denounced him in the streets?

SHUSTER: I think that's a big question. I think that there will be additional disillusionment that will set in, but there also will be anger. And the converse, what happens if Ahmadinejad loses, Mousavi wins and Ahmadinejad's supporters, who are quite bitter and angry - I was in a huge crowd of them a few days ago and there's a subtext of anger there - whether they and the powers that be will allow Mousavi to take power, that's a big question as well.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster is in Tehran covering Iran's presidential election. Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.