June 16, 2005

Leading 'Reformist' Threatens To Withdraw From RaceBY ELI LAKE - Staff Reporter of the Sun

WASHINGTON - As Iran's presidential race enters its final days, the leading "reformist" hinted that he may withdraw from the race as two influential critics of the regime reversed tack and urged young people to vote for him.

At a soccer stadium rally in Tehran yesterday, Mohsen Kadivar, a cleric previously jailed for his activities against the supreme leader, was joined by a former female member of parliament, Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, in endorsing candidate Mostafa Moin, according to an Iranian Web logger, Hossein Derakhshan, also known as "Hoder."

A former higher education minister, Mr. Moin is widely portrayed as a reformist in the tradition of the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami. The largest student organization in Iran, known as the office to consolidate unity, last month pressed Mr. Moin to withdraw from the race. The group has led a campaign imploring their fellow students to boycott the polls tomorrow.

A coalition of native activists and exiles, frustrated with unfulfilled promises by reformers, have since December called for a referendum on Iran's constitution in hopes of incorporating into Iranian law the rights enumerated in the U.N. declaration of human rights.

But with momentum slow to gather for the referendum, Iranian opposition figures - ranging from dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri to journalist Akbar Ganji - pushed for a boycott of tomorrow's presidential election. In the last two months, Iran's leading mullahs and presidential candidates have by contrast encouraged Iranians to show up at the polls - in part to anger the Bush administration. The two sides clashed this week in front of Evin prison, where Mr. Ganji is currently being held. He was carted off to jail Sunday after having been released briefly last month.

Mr. Moin yesterday hinted that he may withdraw from the race, but not as a show of solidarity with the students. In an interview published yesterday by the Guardian of London, he said that the recent wave of bombings in the last week in Tehran and the Khuzestan province may make it impossible to run.

"If they continue in this way, my supporters will hold an emergency meeting to study the situation and they will reconsider our participation in the election," he told the newspaper. "Our preference is to continue until the end, but if we consider that the first rule and regulation of democracy, that is, a free election, is not observed, then we will have a decision to take."

At press time, Mr. Moin had not withdrawn his candidacy. But one of the seven other hard-line candidates, former revolutionary guard chief Mohsen Rezaei, announced he was pulling out in order to shore up support for a more traditionalist candidate.

According to one of the founders of the revolutionary guard and a former industry minister, Mohsen Sazegara, Mr. Rezaei's announcement will likely benefit an ex-chief of radio and television, Ali Larijani.

The narrowing field in Iran may also benefit a former president and current candidate for the post, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mr. Rafsanjani is one of the wealthiest men in Iran with investments in everything from oil and gas concerns to pistachios. He also has been named by a German court document as having approved the extra-legal assassinations of Iranian dissidents in Europe. Mr. Rafsanjani has campaigned on the nuclear platform, attempting to assure voters that he could make a deal with the West on Iran's nuclear program, which he oversaw when it was secret in the early 1990s.

An early supporter of the referendum movement, Mr. Sazegara, who is currently at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The New York Sun yesterday that he predicted at least 10 million people, 20% of eligible voters, will vote tomorrow and choose a hard-line candidate. He also anticipated that 30% of the eligible voters will stay away from the polls and heed the call for a boycott.

The real question is the remaining 50%," Mr. Sazegara said. "Some of my friends say polls suggest that only 10% of them will vote. But, at this point, nobody knows." Mr. Sazegara said the swing turnout is important because it will be a good indicator for whether the Iranian populace is ready to embrace a referendum. When asked whether he would trust an official vote tally, Mr. Sazegara said no, but he added that there are enough sympathizers within the ministry of interior that eventually the real poll numbers will surface.

Mr. Sazegara said yesterday that one of the only certainties about the election is that it was highly unlikely that any one candidate would receive the 50% of the vote needed to avoid having the ballots move to a second round.

A colleague of Mr. Sazegara's at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Patrick Clawson, said yesterday that Iranian policy would likely change little as a result of the presidential elections.

"At the end of the day, the regime is going to inflate the number of people they say will vote," he said. "What has been most impressive about the campaign is that every candidate is presenting themselves as the one to make real effective change and almost certainly they will not succeed because the supreme leader and the revolutionary institutions that hold real power will not give up that power," Mr. Clawson said.



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