When Iran’s presidential campaign began two months ago, few expected much excitement or voter interest. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first four-year term had been characterized by increasing repression and an expanded role for the state’s security agencies. The major institutions of the state were firmly in the hands of conservatives and hardliners. The main opposition party initially even had a hard time finding a plausible candidate willing to challenge the incumbent. Yet the election took a surprising turn, and has ended up shaking the very foundations of the Islamic Republic.
Only a few years ago Iran appeared to be on the cusp of fundamental democratic transformation. The 1997 landslide victory of President Mohammad Khatami had ushered in an era of expanding social freedoms and increasingly open political debate. Then, in 2000, a coalition of reformist parties won a working majority in parliamentary elections,