- The Washington Times - Friday, June 12, 2009

A bigger-than-usual turnout of Iranians living abroad is expected for Friday’s presidential election, with many casting their ballot in hopes that the results will help improve Iran’s relations with its neighbors and the West.

According to election88.com, the Iranian government’s official Web site for the vote, 304 polling stations have been established in 130 countries outside Iran, including the United States, Turkey, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

In the Islamic Republic’s 10th presidential election, Iranians will choose among incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Mir-Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister; former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi; and Mohsen Rezaie, who once led the elite military force known as the Revolutionary Guard.

Analysts expect a higher-than-usual turnout among a diaspora estimated at several million, in comparison to the 2005 elections, which were boycotted by many people inside and outside Iran.

Many Iranians say they are motivated to vote against Mr. Ahmadinejad after four years of belligerent foreign policy and economic mismanagement.

“This time around, I’m not seeing any of the boycott campaigns,” said Trita Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council. “On the contrary, I am actually seeing Iranian-Americans organizing efforts to get more Iranian-Americans to vote.”

Candidates are capitalizing on the Internet to reach an international electorate; contentious debates among the candidates have been posted on YouTube.

According to Google Insights for Search, a division of the Google search engine that provides data on global search statistics, Google searches for “Mousavi” have totaled about half the amount of hits as “Ahmadinejad” in the United States this month.

However, the Mousavi campaign has five times more followers on the social networking site Facebook as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s campaign.

Farisa Dastvar, a law student at George Mason University in Virginia who watched the presidential debates on YouTube and plans to vote at the Iranian Interest Section in Washington, said she ordinarily would not bother.

“The reason why I am voting this year is because of the viral campaign that Mousavi has created online,” she said.

Mr. Parsi added, “There are videos on YouTube encouraging Iranian-Americans to vote. There is a significant shift, which I think one can attribute to how things have developed under Ahmadinejad.”

Ruhi Ramazani, professor emeritus of politics at the University of Virginia, likened the Internet fervor to the campaign of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, in the years leading up to the 1979 overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

“Khomeini used to use cassettes. Now the Iranian-American youth use the Internet to get their information,” he said.

Iranians have been striving for democracy since the 1905 Constitutional Revolution and now have a quasi-democracy that limits candidates to regime loyalists and reserves ultimate power for a Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Still there is hope that the system can evolve.

“Voting does make a difference,” said Hooman Majd, the son of an Iranian diplomat. “A lot of people felt in the past that voting doesn’t make a difference, especially if you’re living abroad - because the supreme leader makes all the decisions and all that. Then they realized after four years of Ahmadinejad, it does make a difference. It makes a big difference.”

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