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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 June, 2005, 08:29 GMT 09:29 UK
Iran's youth stunned into action
Tehran's unofficial speakeasies are among the few places you can usually find Iranian kids acting their age in the capital.

On election night, however, the atmosphere was anything but upbeat.

"I think we made a big mistake," said 18-year-old Amir, one of only five people present, while half-heartedly sipping on a watermelon smoothie.

Customer at Tehran speakeasy
The coffee bars are part pick-up joint, part political forum
"Mostafa Moin [the unsuccessful reformist candidate] warned us that if we boycotted the election we'd be paving the way for a 'dark age of totalitarian rule'. It looks like he might have been right," he says.

From behind the makeshift bar, an ageing stereo rocked Motown classics to ease the tension, but the election results - to which the radio had been tuned less than half an hour previously - still echoed around the almost empty room.

"Earlier this evening you couldn't move in here for people crowding around the radio for updates," said Fereydoun, 38, who owns this ghave khane, or coffee house, on the outskirts of the city.

Most of these kids were unable to identify with a single candidate and refused to vote in protest
Cafe owner Fereydoun
"Once they announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was through to the second round, people started leaving just like that. It was as if they expected him to turn up at any moment and shut the place down."

The collection of mismatched furniture and unintentionally kitsch Western trimmings is hardly cosmopolitan, but Fereydoun's place is a bar in every way apart from selling alcohol - cakes and shakes are the order of the day.

It is also a pick-up joint and - now more than ever - a hushed political forum.

Iran's future

Recent years have seen a slow erosion of restrictions among Iran's youth, from the predominance of pop music and bright Western attire to the DJs, drinks and even designer drugs that typify parties in the high rise palaces of northern Tehran.

But for many, it is not enough.

"The government is fond of saying that Iran's youth represents the future of the Islamic Republic," said Fereydoun.

"But most of these kids were unable to identify with a single candidate and refused to vote in protest."

Customers at Tehran speakeasy
Everything is on the menu, except alcohol
It was this liberal boycott - bolstered by two terms of frustrated reforms under the outgoing President Mohammad Khatami - that many believe led to the shock second place of ultra-conservative former-Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

During an election in which the language of reform was a common and potentially soft currency - when even conservative former police chiefs were reinventing themselves as champions of women's rights - Mr Ahmadinejad was the only candidate to make no attempt to appeal to reformist voters.

His campaign was characterised by a rash of extreme rhetoric. He promised to "chop the hands off" corrupt officials and stated in May that Iran "didn't have a Revolution in order to establish democracy".

More recently, he had the editor-in-chief of a popular Tehran daily dismissed after he refused to let Mr Ahmadinejad use his newspaper as a political platform.

This Friday, the hard-line conservative will contest the election in a second round with former president and media-savvy centrist Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Mr Rafsanjani has promised to address the "legitimate demands of the young generation", lending his support to progressive dress codes and pre-marital relationships and pledging to ease ties with the West.

His political past is far from spotless - countless pro-reform journalists and thinkers were arrested or "disappeared" during Mr Rafsanjani's previous presidency - but in a toss-up with Mr Ahmadinejad, most are willing to give him a second chance.

"I think a lot of these kids will be voting this Friday even if they didn't yesterday," said Fereydoun.

"I certainly will be. The future of this place could depend on it."


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