The day we arrived in Iran's capital, Tehran, billboards along the drive from the airport to the city center were already telling us something about what's happening in the country as it prepared for Friday's presidential elections.
We see typical highway signs for Sony Ericsson, but also billboards featuring the face of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. We also see and drive under giant signs that are from Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging people to vote.
Iran's supreme leader has predicted his country will produce an "epic" turnout, a big endorsement of the Islamic Republic.
Khamenei calls for that endorsement at a time of intense pressure on the country, both internal and external. Its powerful clerics have used intensive security measures after a wave of protests four years ago and is now carefully managing the upcoming polls. Eight candidates won permission to try to succeed the controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And the election has ramifications far behind Iran's borders. The country faces international isolation over its nuclear program, which continues to confound and frustrate the West even as the U.S. and EU apply ever-stricter sanctions.
It will also affect Iran's key role as a regional player, most notably in Syria, where Iran backs the regime of Bashar Assad.
Dissatisfaction With Iran's Direction
When the last presidential election was disputed in 2009, it was Khamenei who ordered millions of protesters to stop marching in the streets. Security services jailed many Iranians.
Four years later, Khamenei and key officials still preside over the struggling capital. U.S.-led economic sanctions linked to Iran's nuclear program have hammered the country. Analysts also blame declining oil revenues and poor economic management.
You can measure the damage by visiting Tehran's money changers, where people trade thick stacks of Iran's currency. The rial has spiraled downward in value: These days, a cup of espresso can cost up to 60,000 rials, or nearly $5.
Many people have traded rials for gold coins or American dollars.
With each bit of news, the currency shifts, and the man behind the counter says his job is stressful. He says he is worried all the time. When he goes home, he says, he argues with his family.
At the window of a different cash exchange, a pharmacist making a transaction shrugs off the trouble. There are a lot of problems because of the sanctions, he says, but business goes on.
Yet that doesn't mean he's happy with his country's direction. We ask if he is following the election; he responds with a laugh.
The man still thinks about the disputed election in 2009, which gave Ahmadinejad a second term.
"The president," he says, "is not a real president, but this is just my opinion."
Elections Brings Out Critics
Iranians are now free to criticize the departing president, who's seen as having fallen out of favor with the supreme leader.
But this potential voter says something bolder. Despite the billboards urging him to vote, he says he may not. And though some billboards declare, "We have the right to choose," he feels he does not.
He says none of the candidates are interesting to him, and as a result he's not likely to vote.
"All of them just selected by the government," he says.
The government approved only 8 out nearly 700 would-be presidential candidates. Those not deemed qualified to be president included a former president.
Election time is a time of relative openness in Iran's political debate, though always within limits. The government is on guard against a repeat of the 2009 protests. Two candidates declared to be defeated back then are still under house arrest. Many students at universities, traditional centers of activism, were sent home early this year.
Yet at a campaign rally, some chanted the name of a defeated candidate from four years ago. At another rally, people chanted for political prisoners to be freed. And on the streets, people keep finding ways to speak.
In Tehran's old bazaar, horse-drawn carriages roll by, and colorful tiles cover the buildings. We meet two men who sell cleaning brushes.
One says his income has stagnated, while the cost of his rental apartment soars, more than doubling in the past two years.
It is a busy day at the bazaar, and a crowd begins gathering to listen to our discussion about the election.
The men say they will vote, if reluctantly. It's a decision that matters. Voters who say they want to reform Iran's government have been weighing whether to vote, which effectively endorses the system — or sit out the election, which would let their more conservative opponents win.
Telling Their Stories
Now the whole crowd is engaged, and it's clear we're being watched intently. A man records the scene on his cellphone. A police station is nearby.
Yet people keep pushing forward, tugging my elbow, interrupting the interpreter, wanting to be heard.
Some in the crowd say they do favor certain candidates: Ali Akbar Velayeti, a former foreign minister; and two men who have been Iran's nuclear negotiators, Hassan Rowhani and Saeed Jalili.
Some voters support conservative candidates, who emphasize loyalty to the supreme leader, traditional roles for women, or resistance to the West. One man says he hates the U.S. for its pressure on Iran's nuclear program.
Other voters back candidates who are running as reformers, urging free speech or better relations with the West.
Better relations are exactly the desire of a former factory worker in the crowd who says he's now a street peddler. He favors better relations, even with the U.S., if it can help the Iranian economy.
And still more people wanted to be heard. One woman says she hasn't voted since the protests in 2009.
Then another woman says her husband is a disabled veteran of Iran's war against Iraq in the 1980s. And she also brings up that disputed 2009 election.
Her son was a protester, she says. He was arrested, and tortured.
She says she used to wear a chador — a conservative black garment that covers everything but the face — but, she says, she got so angry she stopped.
Police wade into the crowd just as she finishes talking.
The men in uniform break up the discussion, and briefly lead our producer and me to a police station. A commander politely acknowledges we'd done nothing wrong. He says he was just concerned that large crowds might turn violent.
Yet the intervention did not quite end the discussion. Even as we walk into the police station, one more woman follows us.
You never talked to me, she says. She wants to tell her story.
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