‘Rogue State’ Holds Elections on Park Ave.- Did Anyone Show Up?

A few weeks ago, Iranians living in the U.S.-or at least those known to the regime in Tehran-began receiving postcards in the mail detailing plans for the Presidential elections of 1384, or A.D. 2005. The postcard-covered on both sides entirely in Farsi except for the name and address, and unintelligible to presumably anyone but the recipient and the F.B.I.-announced that any Iranians living in America could participate in the elections of their country of birth at polling stations set up by the Iranian government (with actual addresses thoughtfully provided on the Web site http://www.election1384.com).

Before I received my card, I hadn’t been aware that the Islamic Republic, lacking any relations with the U.S., diplomatic or otherwise, was going to extend the vote to Iranian-Americans who have chosen to live in the very bosom of the Great Satan, let alone those who’ve received Satanic citizenship. From the Web site, I discovered that my polling station in Manhattan was at the Sheraton Russell, 45 Park Avenue South, and the opportunity to vote in two nations’ elections-nations that are avowed enemies and may end up at war with each other-was too deliciously ironic to pass up. So on Friday, June 17, I showed up, birth certificate in hand, to cast a vote for President of the Islamic Republic, the formerly not-so-Islamic kingdom I had been born in 48 years ago, but left as the small child of a globe- trotting diplomat.

At the Sheraton, there were no signs that a charter member of the “axis of evil” was holding an election on American soil. Outside, there were no cameras, no police officers, no F.B.I. men and no Secret Service, despite the State Department rule that Iranian diplomats at the U.N. Mission are limited in their wanderings to a 25-mile radius of Manhattan. If any of the employees of the mission were tailed there from their offices on Third Avenue, there was no sign of it (but then again, perhaps the undercover men don’t read Farsi, or don’t park their blacked-out Fords illegally in Manhattan hotel zones).

There were no protesters, either: no anti-regime Iranians or any anti-Iranian Americans, despite the seemingly juicy opportunity, and security at the hotel was nonexistent-unless one were to count the rather burly but quite jovial doorman who ushered me in through the doors with a huge grin. Did the Starwood Hotel group not know that the Islamic Republic was in the house?

Inside the hotel’s quiet lobby, small hand-written Farsi signs directed voters to a conference room on the ground floor, where two bearded men with open collars sat behind a folding table with a stack of ballots in front of them. Two other men, also bearded and tieless, stood against a wall conversing in whispers. Three or four Iranians-women sans the scarf that covered their hair in their passport photos, men clean-shaven and thoroughly Western in appearance-formed a short queue and held out their papers to be examined by one or the other of the men, who then dutifully copied relevant details onto one side of a perforated ballot.

I waited only a few seconds while my ballot was filled out for me and was then directed to place my index finger on an inkpad and make an imprint on the ballot. A dismissive wave of the hand followed, vaguely in the direction of boxes of tissues and Wet Ones, indicating that the Iranians weren’t expecting any Iraqi-style PDPF: Public Displays of Purple Fingers. My ballot was stamped before being carefully separated in half; the blank side was returned to me, and I walked over to where the ballot box (of the cardboard high-school-elections variety) was set up on a separate table below the seven candidates’ names taped to the wall.

Not being as proficient with the Persian script as I would like, I spent some time copying Mostafa Moin’s name into the blank space on my ballot, but the time I spent on good penmanship left me the lone voter in the room, as the others had left quietly despite polite exhortations to stay for a cup of tea or coffee. The Iranian authorities, presumably thinking the turnout would be significant and the mood exuberant, had set up hundreds of cups and saucers, urns of coffee and tea, and plates of cookies on a white-cloth-covered table in the corner, but they remained untouched. The forlorn looks of the bearded men as they begged me to stay for tea betrayed their disappointment that a desire to be the friendly face of the Islamic Republic may have not registered as well as they had hoped with the handful of Iranian New Yorkers who had bothered to show up.

A week later, after the surprise showing of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as runner-up to favorite Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani resulted in a runoff election between the two men, interested Iranians in Manhattan were once again invited to the Sheraton. And again, despite substantial coverage of the Iranian elections in the media, somehow the Manhattan vote had slipped under the radar.

The Sheraton was, if anything, quieter than the week before. Inside the polling station, moved to the second floor, the coffee cups and the plates of cookies were again untouched, and I founded myself the solitary voter in Suite 218. The same bearded men, seated quietly behind their desk, seemed resigned to the fact that despite reformists’ pleas to get out the vote against Mr. Ahmadinejad, New York Iranians-estimated to be in the many thousands-were not heeding the call. I, however, was only disappointed that the authorities hadn’t had the sense of humor to emulate Mr. Ahmadinejad’s polling district in Tehran by placing an American flag on the floor for voters to walk over as they cast their ballots.

The voting process was quick, but as I was leaving, their repeated entreaties for me to stay, not only for tea but also for a plate of rice and halal kebabs, kept me at the door. I took the opportunity-between “No, thank you, I’ve eaten” and “Please, how ’bout some tea?” and “No, really, I can’t stay”-to ask what was going to be done with my ballot. One official, gesturing toward his kebabs as yet another invitation to partake, informed me that the box would be opened, the votes counted and the results faxed to the Interior Ministry in Tehran in time to be included in the official results. Holding a spoon in midair, as if waiting for me to say “Oh, O.K., just a small bite,” he informed me that news reports from Iran were of long and overcrowded lines at polling stations and of voting hours being extended to accommodate the rush. At the embassy in Brussels, he said, the voting hours had also been extended. (Brussels? Just how many Iranians could there be in Belgium?) His enthusiasm for Islamic democracy notwithstanding, I sensed in him a certain sadness that, at his assignment in Manhattan, no such extensions would be necessary.