When Iranians vote Friday for president, it will be an election unlike any other.
Clerics who hold supreme power in the Islamic Republic have allowed elections for decades.
But while the people vote, clerics and their allies make the rules. Those already in power choose who can run for office and limit what they do if elected.
Restrictions are tighter than ever after massive protests that followed a disputed election in 2009. In fact, the country has come to redefine the whole purpose of an election.
That was noticeable at an event for presidential candidate Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator and one of six candidates in Friday's vote.
His supporters include Seyid Amir, a college student at Tehran University, who was sitting on a carpet against the wall.
He says the most important thing to him is working for Jalili.
"Working for Mr. Jalili is like working for God," he says.
Jalili speaks of traditional roles for women and firm resistance to the United States. He also promises complete loyalty to the ayatollah, Iran's supreme leader.
Jalili is a hard-liner — or a principlist, as conservatives are called here — committed to their version of the principles of Iran's revolution.
Across the room, we struck up a conversation with another voter, Hassan Salmani. We assumed he, too, would be a Jalili supporter, but he said Jalili is "dangerous." He's not "realistic," Salmani added, about finding a way out of U.S. economic sanctions, imposed because of Iran's nuclear program.
This voter is conservative — in fact, he's a cleric himself — but he'd hoped for a different candidate whom Iran's government did not allow to run.
'A Social Instrument'
In Iran, voters and candidates alike are often reminded of the limits of their political power. Those who complain about it are careful not to complain too much.
Consider Mohammad Gharazi, a presidential candidate who arrived at a news conference this week. He's not one of the favored candidates, and he soon launched into a complaint, saying that Iran's state-run television network has not been reporting his words accurately.
Does he think the election is free and fair?
His answer was revealing.
"I don't look at the election as an instrument of power," he said. "I look at it as a social instrument."
He went on to say that the election wasn't really to decide policy. It was simply for Iranians to show up by the millions and show support for their government against outside powers.
To American ears this may seem unusual, but Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, has said roughly the same thing.
To be sure, this election is still an election, and it certainly felt like it on Monday night. Thousands of people jammed a public hall to hear Mohammed Reza Aref speak.
He was a more liberal candidate — a reformer in Iran's parlance. And this was Aref's final rally before he made a dramatic sacrifice.
Everybody in the room knew he was about to withdraw in favor of another candidate, so reformers wouldn't split their votes. Yet even at this emotional event, one of the speakers, Fatima Rake, made a surprising statement.
"The result of the election is not important," she declared. "Your participation is important."
Reformers are trying to convince their supporters to vote despite a widespread belief the game is rigged, from the selection of candidates to the counting of votes.
After the rally, we spoke with two voters on their way out. They were younger men directly affected by Iran's troubles.
Analysts say U.S. sanctions and government mismanagement are wrecking the economy. Both men are in their 20s, both are doctors, and yet despite the qualifications, neither has a full-time job.
"We have made a revolution about 35 years ago, we are not stabilized yet, and many rules are not as we want," one of them said.
It's in hope of changing the rules — improving the economy or loosening restrictions on women — that the young men attended the reformers' campaign rally.
But as we stood outside, it became uncomfortable to talk. Hundreds of government security personnel were monitoring the street, lined up against an iron fence. Watching us. We decided to move on.
One of the young men walked alongside me a little farther. He tried to smile, and to explain something.
"There is no hope of change," he said. "We are doing this for the memory of better times."
Who Really Makes The Rules?
To understand the present, it's important to understand the country's past. High on a mountain, on a street too narrow to drive a car, a tiny stream flows down the middle of the street, past the modest home of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
Khomeini was Iran's first supreme leader, the revolutionary founder of Iran's system called velayat e-faqih, or guardianship of Islamic jurists. He created a tangled system of checks and balances where all lines of power ultimately flow back to unelected clerics.
It's extraordinarily hard to change the system.
That's fine for many Iranians, like a saffron dealer who brought his family hundreds of miles to visit the late ayatollah's home.
"We are followers of the supreme leader," said the saffron dealer — meaning Khomeini's successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Whatever he says, we follow."
The dealer said the country is in good shape, and like his wife, he's deciding among the more conservative presidential candidates.
Then again, on this narrow street we also encountered Mohammad Solari, a retired oil executive with a different view. He thinks foreign relations and the economy are the most important issues.
"Inflation is so high, and it's hurting the people," he said.
Yet Solari is having trouble deciding how to vote. The candidate he had favored had dropped out of the race.
Solari said he's a relative of Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pragmatic former president who was disqualified from running. He's been forced to accept the decision without protest — as in fact, his relative Rafsanjani did.
Millions of Iranians will finally vote on Friday. But even as they prepared to do so this week, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency shook the ground with some news: A small group called the Guardian Council was about to meet.
It has the power to disqualify presidential candidates and was reportedly considering whether to reject one more of them. Half its members were appointed by the supreme leader, and the Fars report served as a reminder of who still makes the rules in Iran.
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