Iranian theocracy-meets-democracy – for all its imperfections – swung into action on Friday as 46.7 million eligible voters were asked to choose a new president from seven candidates. All indications are that only three will be left standing at the end of the day: the wily mullah – Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani; the populist cop – Mohammed Baqir Qalibaf; and the reformist – Mostafa Moin. The latest indications are that Rafsanjani will garner about 40%-plus of the vote, with the other two trailing. In which case, Rafsanjani will square off against the nearest challenger on July 1 as a candidate needs 50% support to win outright.

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Half of Iran’s 67 million people are less than 25 years old, and two-thirds of the electorate are under 30 – 15 year olds are allowed to vote. Thus they have no memory of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. For the candidates (average age 62), the Holy Grail was how to capture not only the massive youth vote but also the female vote (52.1% of the population; no female candidates allowed).

After the reformists were dealt a huge setback in early 2004 when the Guardians Council disqualified almost all of their candidates for being “un-Islamic,” Iranians became experts in deploying boycott as an electoral weapon. Nevertheless, voter turnout this time is expected to be higher than 50%. The regime for its part deployed a huge propaganda campaign – on the media and the mosques – urging people to vote.

The next Iranian president will face myriad internal problems – basically jobs, jobs, jobs (one out of three Iranians is unemployed) and the end of corruption – as well as tremendous political turbulence along Iran’s borders both in the Middle East and Central Asia, not to mention Washington hawks’ “axis of evil” obsession with regime change.

The revolution won’t be televised

It’s easy to point out what won’t change. Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will remain the Supreme Leader, the definitive “defender of the revolution” (and commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces), with the system of velayat-e-faqih assuring the preeminence of religious jurisprudence over politics.

No wonder people like Abdullah Momeni, a spokesman of the largest Iranian reformist student organization, called for a boycott. After outgoing president Mohammad Khatami’s failures to push through promised reforms, nobody realistically believes any reformist president can face the Guardians Council. Many students in Tehran in fact are basically saying “no matter who wins, we will all lose.”

Some powerful political players may not lose at all. A geopolitical axiom in the “axis of evil” era is that the hardest core of the mullahcracy in Tehran as well as the most imperialistic neo-conservative armchair warriors in Washington feed on each other. Neither side wants a detente.

No one knows whether this Iranian presidential election will represent a revolutionary turning point or just a hollow reality show. It is certainly much more representative than what passes for political life in US-supported Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan.

The George W. Bush administration has dismissed the elections as “rigged.” President Bush said that “Iran is ruled by men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world.” All this is inevitable when neo-conservatives still dream of blowing up the Iranian regime.

Iran has all the potential to be the new China. Tehran’s gross domestic product is larger than Shanghai and Beijing put together. The new generation of Iranians instinctively knows it – and they want to start building this new China, right here, right now.

Iranian students don’t forget that Rafsanjani, under his two previous presidential mandates, sent thousands of intellectuals to jail and ordered libraries to be burned. Perhaps the most revolutionary perspective at the moment is being exposed by people such as prominent activist Ebrahim Yazdi: “Not voting would play into the hands of totalitarian forces. It is after the election that the reform movement will begin.”

Rafsanjani’s show?

Rafsanjani, a faithful disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, is the ultimate Persian Machiavelli. A wily pragmatist and former two-term president, he now cloaks himself as self-appointed savior of the Iranian nation. Hard to swallow for many – as he’s widely considered to be the wealthiest man in the country. Extremely well connected, Rafsanjani’s reach threatens even the Supreme Leader. They’ve been rivals since Khomeini was in power.

As much as he describes himself as “a pillar of the revolution”, Rafsanjani has also stressed that “young people should not be prevented from expressing their views and opinions.” His recipe to re-start the economy is more privatization, thus more jobs. On foreign policy, the key issue in Rafsanjani’s platform is that he’s against the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb, as he’s “going for a policy of relaxation of tension and detente, and this is a policy I will apply to the United States.”

Qalibaf, 43, Iran’s former top cop and presidential adviser, also describes himself as a pragmatist. He says he’s neither a conservative nor a right-winger – though he’s definitely close to Khamenei. Oozing charm, he’s aiming for mission impossible – trying to bridge the gap between the mullahs and the nation’s youth. He’s got the religiously correct credentials (his wife is not allowed to shake hands with an unknown man, for instance) as well as authority (a veteran of the Iranian security forces). On the other hand, his campaign slogan could have been fashioned by Madison Avenue: “Iranians have a right to a good life.” Some European diplomats comment he could even prevail over Rafsanjani. Crucially, the Rafsanjani camp in Tehran sees Qalibaf as a Trojan Horse – introduced by Khamenei to undermine or even bury his old rival.

Moin, 50, educator, medical doctor, reformer and former minister of university education and technology, will try to follow in the footsteps of Khatami. In his rallies, according to the Tehran Times, he called for the “upcoming establishment of a Democracy and Human Rights Front in Iran to defend the rights of all Iran’s religious and ethnic groups, the youth, academicians, women, and political opposition groups whose rights are often neglected.”

His target was 16 million high-school students, 7 million academics, more than 2 million college students, at least 1 million teachers and 50,000 professors who badly want an educated man as main interlocutor – not a millionaire mullah or a cop. But vast swathes of the intelligentsia – as well as the media industry – may vote for him just out of despair. The Moin camp hopes that if he reaches the second round, the silent, fed-up majority will decide to support him en masse. It’s an ambitious strategy. The Moin camp says they are laying the groundwork for a mass movement; this election is just the beginning.