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Iran's elections: The view from the highway

Will the country vote to keep conservative leader or choose reform candidate?

Iranian clerics chat as they wait in line to cast their votes at the shrine of Hazrat-e Massoumeh, granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad, in the city of Qom, 75 miles south of Tehran on June 12, 2009. Qom has a reputation for conservatism and also respect for its clerics, which may be a factor in how the provincial city votes. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

QOM-TEHRAN HIGHWAY — Two friends drive at top speed towards Tehran, the Iranian capital, on the night of the 2009 Presidential elections. Both in their early 20s, they represent the Islamic Republic's so-called children of the revolution: Iranians under 30, an age group that makes up 70 percent of the population.

Both are fervent supporters of reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who inherited the reformist mantle from former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and has squared up to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the Islamic Republic's most crucial election.

Mousavi is the two-time former prime minister who ran Iran during its eight-year struggle with Iraq between 1981 and 1989. After four years of governance by the conservative Ahmadinejad, who has exuberantly accused his enemies in Iran and abroad of everything from corruption to covert operations and pushing the economy into an inflationary, unemployment-struck rut, Mousavi's arrival offered hope that he would restore lost social liberties domestically and present a friendlier face to the Obama administration in Washington.

"All countries act according to their interests," said the man in the driver's seat. "We're the only one who have a president who speaks according to his personal beliefs and ideology."

The exultation experienced by the two friends as they visited giddily pro-Mousavi polling stations in Tehran, overflowing with hopeful voters, ebbed the more they spoke to voters in heavily pro-Ahmadinejad Qom.

As the car eats up the kilometers on the straight highway connecting the two cities, they take calls on their cellphones from a network of professional contacts in a bid to make sense of the conflicting information in Iran's most polarized election yet.

"Fars (a conservative news-agency) has just issued a story congratulating Ahmadinejad," one comments disbelievingly. "But the polls have not even closed yet!"

"Kayhan (a conservative pro-government newspaper) has closed its front page with the report that Ahmadinejad won 60 percent," he adds after another phone call.

The driver is calling around his contacts in the Interior Ministry but drawing nothing. "Even those sitting over the voting booths don't know what's really going on," he said.