An Iranian tweet doing the rounds on the day of Iran's parliamentary elections read: "One of the miracles of the Islamic republic is that 85% of the people are at home witnessing an 85% national vote". Indeed, the official media have been quick to announce that the turnout on 2 March 2012 was an "epic record" as well as to proclaim an "overwhelming victory" for candidates loyal to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is difficult to verify turnout figures, far less results, in the absence of independent observers. Several foreign journalists in Tehran have given a vivid flavour of the conditions in which they work; Bill Spindle writes that "(dozens) of foreign journalists were loaded onto buses on Friday morning, delivered to three voting stations and warned not to visit others on their own", while CNN’s Ivan Watson tweets that "(visiting) foreign journalists covering the election in Tehran have all been sent back to their hotels and told to stay put."
In this light, the tone of the authorities' post-election assertions seems excessive, given that their efforts to ensure the "correct" outcome meant that opposition groups (including reformists) decided to boycott the vote. After all, why boast so hard about a triumph that your own actions have guaranteed in advance?
A revolution with interest
But if the election results are somewhere between opaque and meaningless, the process surrounding them and the political context in which they have taken place are more significant. The poll is the first since the disputed presidential election in June 2009 that incited nationwide protests and an ensuing relentless crackdown. Mir-Hossein Moussavi, the leading opposition candidate, gained millions of votes in that election by calling for democracy and an end to Iran's international isolation. A single post-election rally in Tehran (3 million-strong, according to the city's current mayor) resounded to protesters asking: "where is my vote?". The question was left unanswered, as the state did everything in its power to repress and marginalise those voicing it.
Since February 2011, Mir-Hossein Moussavi and the other main candidate in 2009, Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house-arrest. In a rare phone conversation with his daughters, Moussavi is reported to have said several times that "nothing has changed" and that "I continue to stand by my previous position". His firm stance spread rapidly through Farsi cyberspace - even if very few in Iran are able publicly to voice support for the "green movement".
On the leading Farsi website Balatarin, for example, this sliver of news was fervently shared and discussed. A particular post on Mousavi’s "defiance" was the top news story of the day, receiving over 200 mostly supportive replies of which the highest ranked read: "Learn the lesson of resistance and freedom from Mir-Hossein". This tone too is revealing, in that Moussavi is one of the very few political figures (since his days as prime minister during the war with Iraq) that Iranians call by his first name. The profuse online response is an indication that Moussavi’s apparent resistance has only elevated his popularity.
This is but one of the shadows over Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who claimed a record 25 million votes in the 2009 "landslide". Three years on, even in a tightly controlled parliamentary election, his sister Parvin failed to secure a seat in the family’s hometown of Garmsar. More seriously, the relationship between president and supreme leader - who in 2009 praised Ahmadinejad as "hardworking", "trusted" and a man with whom he shared ideals of "social justice" - continues to be dysfunctional: the rifts go deep, yet neither man can dissociate himself from the other.
This election process, amid an ongoing tussle with the president, has pushed Khamenei - who called on voters to display national unity during a "sensitive period" in the showdown with the west - further into the political fray. A reshuffle of his loyalists has meant promotion for a new motley crew of hardline clerics and members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and now a parliament in the supreme leader's image. From a safe redoubt in the revolutionary base-command he is now more exposed alongside his expendable footsoldiers.
The problems of Khamenei's position are entangled with Iran's economic strains, as international sanctions target its nuclear programme. Many Iranians are suffering increasing economic hardship amid rising inflation, food prices and unemployment. Yet a spike in global oil prices also offers Iran - which has the world's second-largest gas and oil reserves - great relief, and is a reminder that trusted members of the country's ruling elite have access to sizeable financial holdings and can unlock huge rewards through the tax-exempt religious foundations (bonyads) and unaccountable IRGC businesses that control much of the national wealth.
The authorities are responding to external and internal pressures by redoubling efforts to entrench its power over preceived domestic threats. The words of the intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi at a gathering of Friday prayer leaders on 16 February are representative; he warned about the "ongoing threat" of the "seditionists" of the green movement, who were engaged in a "multi-dimensional war against the Islamic republic" through "civil disobedience".
A free voice from prison
Those arrested in the months leading up to the parliamentary elections, however, cannot all be silenced. The respected former editor of the business daily Sarmayeh, Bahman Ahmadi-Amou’ee, is now serving a five-year sentence for criticising the government’s economic policies. In a detailed letter to his wife, written on 14 January 2012, he offers a precious glimpse inside Tehran's Evin prison where dissidents of many stripes are held. He tells her, "if the drumbeats of war are ever really played out. It will be to the detriment of the green movement. We are all concerned. When I say 'we', I mean most of our political prisoners."
Bahman's letter describes a multitude of characters, amongst them Jamal Ameli who comes from a large traditional family in working-class south Tehran. Bahman reports Jamal as telling him: "My father is a clergyman, but does not believe in theocracy. One of my brothers is a wounded veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, my other brother is a member of the basij [militia] and I am a Marxist...the day the officers came to arrest me, they assumed that they’d come to the wrong address, as on the wall was a picture of Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hizbollah, as well as a picture of Ayatollah Khamenei. A picture of Ahmadinejad had previously been up there, but my basiji brother tore it to bits when Ahmadinejad failed to kiss Mr Khamenei’s hand during his presidential inauguration ceremony in 2009".
Bahman shares with his wife the comic irony of having to coexist with the sort of people who were instrumental in his imprisonment. A fresh inmate, for example, is accused by regime clerics of being an adherent of the "deviant current" - a label they attach to populist members of Ahmadinejad’s inner circle. The new prisoner "is distraught, and tells us that if they'd arrested him three days later he would have been the governor of Sistan and Balochistan."
Then there is the student activist Mohammad-Hossein Khorbak, who is offered an early release on condition that he publicly denounces Mir-Hossein Moussavi and applies for a pardon. Mohammad-Hossein, whose wife was expecting a baby within days, responds to his interrogators: "I would rather be in here, so that I can tell my child with pride: 'I was in jail when you were born so that you can have freedom and a better future'".
Bahman Ahmadi-Amou’ee's document paints a vivid picture of the living contradictions of Iranian society, both confirming and expanding what many of us already know. Such complex experiences are easily lost amid the narrative of a 24/7 news-cycle, especially when a minute of throwaway polling-station footage will do. But look a little deeper, and the detonators of change among Iran’s burgeoning youth are as present and as potent as ever.