DUBAI, U.A.E, May 17, 2009 — -- Presidential candidates looking to make headway in a key youth demographic try to win votes with high-tech outreach through YouTube, Facebook and cellphone alerts.
But this isn't Washington in November 2008. It's Iran, in the Persian calendar year 1388.
And it's a sign of a critical election heating up in an increasingly tech-connected society. In roughly one month, Iranian voters will decide whether President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad leaves office or sits for another four-year term.
More than 400 candidates registered to run against him, but three are in the spotlight: reformist cleric and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi; pro-reform centrist and former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi; and conservative former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezaie.
Of the three, Mousavi is seen as the strongest challenger and the most high tech. His campaign maintains a Facebook page and a Twitter account . A two-minute YouTube video plays up some of his credentials: revolutionary devotion, his experience in the Iran-Iraq War and his roughly 20-year absence from politics.
Relative to the competition, he's campaigning as a political outsider, bashing the Iranian equivalent of Beltway politics. Along with it, a firm branding of Mousavi as the political heir to liberal President Mohammad Khatami, with the tagline on his profile picture that reads, "With Khatami, Vote Mousavi."
"Mousavi's campaign has been the most visible online. He has made the most of use of [technology], because he is appealing for the most part ... to intellectuals and young people and women," said Kelly Niknejad, publisher of online news site TehranBureau.com.
Mousavi's aide Behzad Mortazavi told the Financial Times he's looking to technology for viral growth and amplification of their campaign's core message.
"We are using new technologies because they have the capacity to be multiplied by people themselves who can forward Bluetooth, e-mails and text messages and invite more supporters on Facebook," Mortazavi said.
Scanning Mousavi's 1,795 Facebook friends shows an array of young, fresh-faced Iranians. That is, in large part, the point of his campaign's digital arm -- mobilizing the young, educated, urban youth that could hand Mousavi a victory June 12.
"They know many people who are going to bother to vote have access to the Internet," said Dr. Djaved Salehi-Isfahani of Iran's increasingly tech savvy leadership.
Salehi-Isfahani, a Brookings scholar and economics professor at Virginia Tech, sees Internet campaigning as an equalizer, more accessible to both candidates and voters than traditional news outlets.
"It's much cheaper to get the news through the Internet then to buy a newspaper. In addition everyone knows that [state] radio and television in Iran are pretty much monopolized by the conservatives, so it's very hard for reformist candidates to publicize their message. The Internet is more democratic," Salehi-Isfahani said.
Iran's conservatives have also embraced technology. Ahmedinejad, a hard-line principalist, blogs in Persian, which is then translated into English.
Ahmedinejad's following on Facebook is massive – 27,460 supporters drawn from across the Muslim world, with young users from Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan rooting for his re-election.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has his own Web site and keeps a Twitter page, tweeting his travels and public appearances around Iran.
Internet penetration in the Islamic Republic is an estimated 34 percent -- one of the highest in the Middle East -- with roughly 20 million regular users, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Salehi-Isfahani, the economist, says computers are accessible across the country to all income levels.
"One of the big achievements of this regime in the last 30 years is that many more people in lower strata or even rural poor are able to go to high school. Once you go through high school you know enough English to operate Windows," he said.
"Computers are very cheap in Iran. For about $300 to $400 you can buy a computer, and there are computers in every city and small town that I've seen," Salehi-Isfahani added.
Software is also inexpensive, given Iran's rampant piracy and relative lack of intellectual property law. Bloggers in Iran tout one product called "King of Programs," a CD that sells at street prices of around $8 and contains hundreds of pirated programs, including Windows.
The Iranian government encourages computer literacy, even if it blocks millions of sites deemed socially or politically offensive. In February, officials unblocked access to Facebook; the site quickly jumped to the 10th most popular in the country.
"Technology is very important to Iranians. It always has been, it is now, and it's helped built a very modern society, even with the sanctions and all of the restrictions that are in place," said Kelly Niknejad, publisher of online news site TehranBureau.com. "When something's filtered they find a way around."
Blogging is immensely popular in Iran, providing a freer space for ideas and self-expression than the heavily regulated mainstream press. The rising Iranian "Blogistan," as it's known, helped the Persian language rise to one of the top 10 used online, according to blog resource Technorati.
That's part of why campaign appeals are moving online: Candidates are recognizing the Web as an increasingly important political space. Iran's significant youth bulge -- 60 percent of the population is under 30 -- means the trend will almost certainly continue.
While there are plenty of young Iranians who support Ahmedinejad, as evidenced by his Facebook page, analysts predicted a higher youth turnout would favor candidate Mousavi. His campaign's online appeals include passionate pleas to get out the vote.
Though official voter turnout in Iran is fairly high -- Salehi-Isfahani cites figures around 60 percent -- there is a political apathy among Iranian youth that clearly shows in the online discourse.
"The debate isn't whether they're going to support Mousavi or Karrubi or Rezaie. It's more fundamental than that. It's to vote or not to vote," said Niknejad of Tehran Bureau.
"There are those think voting is confirming the status quo," said Niknejad.
Sensing the public desire for new policies and better outcomes, Iran's main presidential candidates are all running on a platform of change, including Ahmedinejad, who has expressed a qualified commitment to new talks with the United States.
With the voters and candidates going high tech, elections will be won online as on the streets of Iran.