June 21, 2005

Analysis: Iran runoff will be decisive By Stefan Nicola UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL June 21, 2005

WASHINGTON -- Iran faces a presidential runoff Friday that might decide the Islamic republic's future political direction.
    The unprecedented runoff comes a week after none of the initial five candidates was able to capture more than half of the ballot. It pits pragmatic cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani against Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, widely regarded as a hard-liner  

   Rafsanjani, who served two previous terms as president (1989-1997), calls the vote a choice between democracy and totalitarianism. He has promised to push social reforms, including women's rights, and has vowed to improve relations with the United States.
    "He certainly has the clout to convince some of the quarters in Iranian politics on national security issues, and he has the clout to mobilize an intellectual middle class to get support for packages of reform in Iran," Mohammed Hadi Semati, a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a centrist think tank in Washington said Tuesday. "Most people would conceive of him as a modernizer."
    But Rafsanjani's track record has sparked some concerns.
    "While he was an economic reformist, there haven't been many advances in social and cultural freedom under his term," Arang Keshavarzian, a political science professor at the Concordia University, Montreal, who spends his summer in Iran, said Tuesday in a telephone interview with United Press International.
    Mohsen Sazegara, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said last week he does not see Rafsanjani as a potential reformer.
    "From acts of terror inside and outside the country to the suppression of university students and closing newspapers ... he has always been by the side of the supreme leader," Sazegara said.
    Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the ultimate say in all domestic and international politics.
    Rafsanjani's intentions aside, the runoff has turned into a fight between reformists and hard-liners. After some of the more progressive candidates grabbed fewer votes than expected, reformists accused the conservatives of fraud.
    In response, Iran's clerics closed three newspapers whose editors had criticized the election process. The leadership, in a statement by Khamenei, warned that it would not "allow anyone to create a crisis."
    The controversy was sparked, in part, because pre-election polls had Ahmadinejad nowhere near the 19.5 percent he captured.
    "His second place was a huge surprise, even to the conservative establishment," Semati said.
    Hard-liners managed to mobilize support with the help of a well-funded and well-organized Revolutionary Guard, he said, adding he had "not seen evidence that actual rigging of the ballots has taken place."
    Iran's Revolutionary Guard has sided with the clerical establishment and consequently with Ahmadinejad.
    "If there was indeed interference by these quasi-military forces, that would be against the constitution," Keshavarzian said.
    U.S. President George W. Bush might have increased the share of Iran's conservative vote with his criticism of the election process, Semati said.
    "Power is in the hands of an unelected few who have retained power through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy," Bush said last Thursday. "The June 17 presidential elections are sadly consistent with this oppressive record." 
    Semati called the timing of the remarks "a bit unfortunate," adding observers on the ground believed the polarizing nature of the statement helped conservatives by bringing more people to the polls.
    Reformists in Iran remain fearful of an Ahmadinejad victory, as it would likely drive back hard-won social freedoms.
    "Many of Ahmadinejad's supporters believe there is ideological and social corruption going on that needs to be stamped out," Keshavarzian said. "That's the fear that might drive many of the Iranians to the polls."
    But with a populist campaign that focuses on class struggle and the increasing divide between rich and poor, the Teheran mayor has managed to reach many citizens in rural areas, where Iran's struggling economy is felt most strongly.
    "If the reformists stay home, Ahmadinejad has a very good chance of winning," Semati said. "The conservatives are going to be mobilized again. In more numbers, actually."
    That's why many moderates -- even some of Rafsanjani's fiercest critics -- now support the former president. The most extreme reformists still feel they're choosing between a rock and a hard place, but none wants the Teheran mayor to win. They are setting aside disappointment over the lack of reforms achieved by outgoing President Mohammed Khatami, who -- though elected as a reformer -- had many of his policies blocked by the powerful clerics. Khatami is not running because of term limits.
    The Tehran mayor, however, might rally Khatami's disillusioned supporters to vote for the other candidate.
    "Ahmadinejad's position is one of little to no tolerance for political opposition, and a very confrontational approach when it comes to relations with the United States," Kaveh Ehsani, a research scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said Tuesday in a telephone interview with UPI. "If he was elected, it would be disastrous for Iran. This guy is rising on the shoulders of military support."
    The nuclear issue is likely to be the biggest challenge faced by the country's next president, but neither candidate is likely to make a move that will make friends in Washington.
    "Rafsanjani's position has been clear. He's saying we're not going to be hostile, but we're not going to be bullied around either," Ehsani said.
    The Bush administration and the international community suspect Iran is using its nuclear program to make weapons in violation of its international obligations. Iran denies the charge. Britain, France and Germany -- the so-called European Union 3 -- are negotiating with Iran in a bid to persuade the Islamic republic to renounce uranium enrichment, a step that can be used to make both energy and weapons.
    "It's still a bit unclear who speaks for the country," Ehsani said, in an apparent reference to a complex constitutional situation in Iran. In the past, presidents have had limited success in driving reforms because they were unable to push back the heavy hand of the six-cleric Guardian Council.
    "Rafsanjani, if anyone, has the status to deal with the council," Ehsani said. "He is a realist. He is a deal-maker." 


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