An election rally, Iran style

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 12, 2013 

— An Iranian election rally for a popular candidate is not for the faint-of-heart, or those in a hurry.

For anyone used to over-organized events in the U.S., or Europe, here’s what not to expect: credentials, security checks, a press entrance, reserved seats or filing facilities. The name of the game is shove-your-way-in, or fuggetaboutit.

Unlike four years ago, the authorities this year allowed reporters to travel out-of-town, provided one obtains a letter in advance introducing oneself to the local police. That in hand, you’re on your own.

The big rallies this election cycle have been held indoors, in big sports halls that can hold thousands, and the two I attended were packed to the gunwales with young people. Hasan Rowhani, the choice of reformists in what is now a six-man race, held his final rally Wednesday night in Mashad, Iran’s second biggest city, and according to his people, he drew 10,000 in a gym meant to hold at most 5,000 spectators, with another 50,000 on the street outside listening to loudspeakers.

How do you get in the door with that crowd? Ehsan Keivani, my Iranian fixer/translator and I, aided by a local supporter of Rowhani, tried the police gate first, but ran into a familiar problem in Iran: competing power centers.

The Rowhani people – who were astonished to have an American reporter along to watch -- wanted to let us in. The plainclothes police didn’t have a big objection. But the uniformed police who man the gate and apparently report to the intelligence did, so that even when the doorman (after about 20 minutes) found the key to the padlock on the first gate -- the Rowhani people had positioned me so that I would be the first person shoved in -- it was a half-solution. Ehsan was left outside and I was soon stranded inside a holding area separated from the hall by another padlocked gate. The police spotted that, and soon I was out on the street and back to square one.

It was time for something completely different. We pushed through the crowd to the other end of the building and went to the second gate, flashed our police letters and election credentials, and the poor bloke trying to man the gate paused for a minute. That’s all it took. Ehsan shoved me in the gate, our local friend shoved in Ehsan, and then entered himself. That was step one. Next was getting into the hall itself; tthe police letters, which no one monitoring the entrances had time to read, were like a magic charm.

The hall was like a sauna; the air conditioning either wasn’t on or couldn’t cope. We had to get to the front of the hall to have any breathing space, and that was another 20 minutes of forcing our way through the crowd. The Rowhani security monitors took one look at the letters and welcomed us to their holding pen – the only international presence there. The three of us looked at each other, gave each other thumb’s up, and couldn’t believe it was that easy.

We were all drenched in sweat. So was the crowd, who were doing nonstop chants and cheers. After about an hour, Rowhani, a cleric in turban, age 64, nearly three times the age of many of those attending, made his entrance and proved a powerful speaker.

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