HERAT, Afghanistan — Amid the tire irons and crowbars in a disabled Russian armored personnel carrier-turned Afghan teahouse, Iranian truck drivers Wednesday debated allegations that their government rigged Iran's June 12 presidential elections — and whether it did so by the thousands or by the millions.
"Of course, the government controls the media — that is how they rose to power," snapped Jaffar, 59, a driver from Mashad, a major city in western Iran. "You can drive north to south in this country, and you are free. Our government would never cheat us out of an election."
As Jaffar spoke, however, Maruche, 29, a Sunni Muslim truck driver from near Torbat e-Jam in eastern Iran, asked the older driver: "How can you say there was no cheating?"
The young man stormed out of the teahouse, but he invited a McClatchy reporter to sit with him in the cab of his truck. He said that on Tuesday new anti-government demonstrations had rocked the city of Isfahan, where his trucking company is based, and he spoke angrily of what he said had happened in his village on election day.
"The election center was controlled by the government," he said. "We saw that with our own eyes. I know about the ballot stuffing because my uncle is a police officer and was a supervisor in the polling station. He saw one man in the polling station put 100 ballots into a box."
"No one can dare protest this in our village or they will simply disappear," Maruche added.
Similar allegations of ballot stuffing have been made elsewhere in Iran, and the Iranian government has admitted that in 50 cities, there were more votes than there were registered voters.
For several hours, Iranian truck drivers in Herat told similar tales of voting irregularities, but the government crackdown sparked the most debate. Some drivers defended the government, calling the demonstrators "hooligans and criminals" who deserved punishment, while others defended them. Several drivers blamed their nation's unrest on foreign powers, singling out the United States as a key meddler in Iranian affairs.
Though it's impossible for Western reporters to work openly inside Iran or to verify the drivers' accounts, the enormous truck stop near the Afghan-Iranian border is a window into the conflicts inside Iran. Those who spoke up did so in fear that government spies were watching.
Covered in grease, Mehdi, 41, a truck driver and father from Iran, took a break from beneath his broken axle to talk to a foreign reporter.
"Why shouldn't we be outraged?" he said. "I drove through Tehran and saw government thugs breaking into university dormitories, dragging out our best students, even Ph.D. candidates, and beating them. I have two sons in that university demonstrating, and I've worked all my life so they can live in freedom."
"We all deserve a voice, and those of us who dare to speak out should be prepared to die!" he said.
Mehdi, a round-faced, cheerful man, was careful, however, to use only his first name. As he spoke, another Iranian driver, carrying a new soccer ball for his son, sat down and offered everyone a cigarette.
"You shouldn't talk to this man," he told Mehdi. "Don't you know that our intelligence officers are everywhere? They even murder opponents of the regime in Europe."
"Nonsense!" insisted Mehdi. "I am just an ordinary truck driver, but in Tehran they will hear my voice. I drove right past the demonstrations when they were beating people and I took pictures with my mobile phone. When I left the city, I stopped into a coffee shop and heard that in the city of Shahrood, yet another man had been killed for protesting."
Truck drivers such as Mehdi appear to be as curious as Western journalists are to find out what's happening in his vast country under a news blackout. Mehdi said he'd telephoned a nephew in Mashad, about 300 miles from Herat, to learn that bands of demonstrators there came out on Ahmadabad Street to protest over the weekend, but police showed up and divided them with blows.
"People care about their votes, the millions that have been stolen," he said. "The people who stole those votes don't love our nation. Iran is a beautiful nation, but (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad is an ugly man, and now the world thinks of him now as a bad joke."
Mehdi said that's because, "They never even bothered to open the ballot boxes — and just made up the numbers. (Opposition candidate Mir Hossein) Mousavi is a brave man to stand up and demand that everyone's vote be counted," said Mehdi.
Even as Mehdi spoke, the driver from Khorasan broke his silence, insisting that, "Actually the people in Iran were angry before; they wanted a spark to start a fire, and now they have it."
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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