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Iranian challenger harnesses power of Web

Web-savvy supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi are posting videos, messages, blogs and anything else in their effort to defeat incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mideast Iran Cyber Campaign
An Iranian woman uses a computer at an Internet cafe in the Tadrish bazaar in northern Tehran, Iran, on Thursday. Challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi's braintrust has found ways to harness the power of the Web in his campaign against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ben Curtis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A dozen young Iranians tap away at computers in a headquarters so new the light fixtures are still being installed. Their mission: to post videos, messages, blogs and anything else to further the Web-savvy campaign that hopes to bring down President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Friday's election.

A keyboard click sends out images from the enormous rallies for their pro-reform champion, Mir Hossein Mousavi. A tap of a mouse updates his speeches and messages. It's heavy with the themes of hope and change — and packaged in the green hues of Mousavi's signature campaign color.

"We saw apathy among the new generation, but we also saw that young people wanted our society to change," said Saeed Shariati, a 35-year-old activist who runs Mousavi's youth Web campaign. "We thought using social networks, which they like, would be the best way to bring Mousavi's message to them."

If it all seems like a flashback to the cyber-smart campaign of Barack Obama, that's no coincidence. The young braintrust behind Mousavi's Web outreach is well aware of the trends and power in online politics. Many came of age during Iran's first blog boom a decade ago and are as comfortable with Facebook and Twitter as any of their Western counterparts.

For the first time in Iran, the forces of the Web have been fully harnessed in an election showdown. It has catapulted Mousavi, a 67-year-old former prime minister from the 1980s, into a political rock star with the potential to pull off an upset victory with his promises of greater freedom and outreach to the United States.

Baby-boom politics
Still, the race remains too close to call, with a runoff also a strong possibility. The winner must get 50 percent of the vote plus one on Friday; if neither does, a runoff will be held June 19.

In the broadest sense, the success of Mousavi's Web campaign is a measure of the sophistication and outward-looking orientation of the many members of the Islamic baby boom: the millions born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution who now account for about a third of Iran's 46.2 million eligible voters.

But it's also another skirmish in a running media battle with Iran's authorities.

Iran's ruling clerics can easily muzzle reformist publications, but they have struggled to clamp down on the Web. Hackers quickly find ways around blocked Web addresses.

Blogs and social-networking sites have gained so much clout that authorities have pushed back hard, briefly shutting down Facebook last month to try to blunt Mousavi's momentum and jailing several prominent bloggers despite an outcry from international press freedom groups.

While Facebook does not do breakdowns by country, some reports estimate there are at least 200,000 users in Iran. Mousavi backers have also used the photo-sharing site Flickr as an online scrapbook of their rallies and campaign events; some filed race updates in Farsi on Twitter.

Iran's communication company says cell phone text-messaging has reached 110 million per day since the election campaign officially opened three weeks ago, double the pre-election period in 2005.

"The four candidates used the SMS (text messaging) technology, but ... Mousavi's campaign used it the most because it is more popular with the young people he appeals to," said Vahid Aghili, a communications professor at Azad University in Tehran. "This is the same for blogs and Web sites."

Web sites abuzz
A posting Thursday on one of Facebook's Mousavi fan pages, which has more than 37,000 followers, asked supporters to report if any Mousavi Web sites or blogs are blocked by the government on election day. Dozens posted responses, with some vowing victory and others promising to be vigilant.

From its modest north Tehran office, Mousavi's campaign has grown to six news Web sites in a matter of weeks. "We are surprised by the response," said the Mousavi campaign Web guru Shariati. "We couldn't have imagined that it would be so successful."

On Thursday — the official election eve day of quiet — the Web sites still buzzed. Mousavi's campaign pressed hard for a big turnout, believing that a strong show of youth support could put Mousavi over the top.

The Mousavi bandwagon is a combination of genuine supporters and others who simply want to dump Ahmadinejad and see him as their best hope.

Web-savvy vs. old school
Win or lose, Mousavi's "green movement" will likely increase the draw and influence of the Web world on Iranian politics in ways more in common with the West than tightly controlled Middle East states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the booming Gulf sheikdoms.

"Now, a woman, a young person, a foreign-based opposition group can play a role inside Iran more than they could before," said Iranian political analyst Saeed Leilaz.

By contrast, Ahmadinejad's campaign has been largely old school: coverage by state TV, radio and regime-friendly newspapers. While he has given a nod to the Web with campaign and personal blogs, they seem more like distant cousins than part of the campaign's inner circle. He also is favored in a majority of Iran's 60,000 mosques, where prayer leaders often praise his government.

And that could still prove the most powerful mix.

Only a quarter of Iran's 70 million people have Web access in their homes or work, and Internet cafes are found only in major cities. This could give state media — which many say supports Ahmadinejad — a considerable advantage at reaching voters.

Iran has one television news channel and one authorized news radio station — both controlled by the government — and state-run channels in English and Arabic.

Some Iranians also have access to satellite TV — which is technically banned — including the Farsi-language broadcasts from Iranian immigrants in southern California that are often strongly critical of the Islamic regime.

In some ways, Mousavi is an accidental Web hero. At the start of the campaign, he had little recognition among under-30 voters, who were just children during his 1981-89 terms as prime minister.

His campaign naturally reached out in their direction: The youth constituency had once before gathered behind former President Mohammad Khatami, who inspired the push for greater social and political freedoms with his first election in 1997.

Reaching young people
Mousavi came along with Iran's Web watchers primed for a cause.

"For 20 years, Mousavi was absent from the media and didn't have a prominent government job," Shariati said. "We had to introduce him to the new generation."

They did that by posting his speeches, policy and a video package of his life before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, during and after.

One of the key turning points came in March when Khatami decided to remove his name from the ballot and back Mousavi. "That triggered tons of interest," said Shariati.

It also spawned a throwback to the Khatami days of a feisty reformist press.

The pro-Mousavi newspaper Kalemeh Sabz, or Green Word, was able to get a license to print just ahead of campaign season. "We knew the best way to reach young people was by Web logs and sites ... But for the older people we had to publish a newspaper," said managing editor, Ali Reza Beheshti.

The Islamic establishment has fought back. It closed one of the top reformist papers, Yas-e-No, or New Jasmine, earlier this week. And on Thursday, a Web site that featured Mousavi videos was blocked by the government.

Ahmadinejad got in one last shot on state TV just before the official campaign period ended at midnight Wednesday. His 20-minute taped address brought strong complaints from Mousavi and the two other candidates — conservative Mohsen Rezaei and reformist Mahdi Karroubi. They were offered a minute or two of airtime to respond, but refused saying it was unfair.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said a tally found that Mousavi had less than two hours of airtime on state TV and radio, compared to 10 times that for Ahmadinejad.