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Iran's reform activists banking on candidate Mostafa Moin

SOOSANGERD, Iran—The people of this sleepy Iranian town near the Iraqi border flocked to the Grand Mosque on Saturday to hear would-be reformer Mostafa Moin make his case for why he should be the next president of Iran.

Children shouted and waved, and drivers honked in greeting as Moin's orange bus, plastered with posters promising an "Iran for all Iranians," rumbled past. "Peace be on prophet Muhammad, the nation's helper has come!" supporters chanted, playing off Moin's last name, which means "helper" in Arabic.

But as impressed as the ethnically Arab residents of Soosangerd were to see Moin—he's the only one of Iran's eight presidential candidates to campaign here—many said they saw no point in voting for him. That despite the fact that this town overwhelmingly supported another reformer, outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, eight years ago when he was first elected and when he was re-elected four years ago.

"We think he won't be different. Ninety percent of us voted for Khatami and what good did it do?" said Ali al Madi, 30, an unemployed laborer who attended the hour-long rally. "We have 70 percent unemployment, a broken-down hospital, and all we hear are words."

The refrain is one that follows Moin and his representatives wherever they go, including here in Iran's southwestern Khuzistan province, a one-time Khatami stronghold.

The president and his call for personal and political freedom riveted this nation of 69 million eight years ago. But disappointment that Iran's un-elected ruling clerics thwarted Khatami's drive for political and economic change at every turn has fueled voter apathy nationwide. As a result, conservatives are likely to win control of the presidency in the June 17 election, as they won control of Iran's parliament last year.

Even the pro-Moin sentiment aroused last month when the all-powerful Guardian Council banned him from running—a decision later overturned by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—has waned.

Polls show Moin trailing former president and cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, a conservative body that mediates between the parliament and the 12-man Guardian Council, Iran's paramount authority of appointed clerics.

Disaffection with reformers is evident throughout the country. At an educators' forum Monday evening in a Moin campaign office in Tehran, several people challenged veteran Iranian sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour's contention that, at this stage, only Moin can lead Iran toward new political, social and economic reforms.

If Khatami, a cleric with connections to the ruling conservatives couldn't do it, how could a civilian doctor with little name recognition succeed, high school psychologist Forough Vahidi, 42, wanted to know.

"If I'd had 24 million voters behind me, Iran would be France by now," she added, referring to Khatami.

Moin, 54, a soft-spoken, lanky pediatrician and immunologist and a former Cabinet minister, takes doubts about his candidacy in stride.

The pace of political and social reform hasn't kept up with people's demands, he said in an interview with Knight Ridder, his first with an American reporter during this presidential campaign.

He said Khatami failed to stand up publicly to the conservative power brokers when they began reversing the reformers' gains, first in a 1999 bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations at Iranian universities and since then by shutting down pro-reform newspapers and imprisoning dissidents.

"If I'm elected, I will not allow my close relationship with people to be cut," said Moin, who resigned as Khatami's minister of science, research and technology to protest the student crackdown. He was reappointed but resigned again in 2003, when the Guardian Council struck down laws that would have helped reform his ministry.

"I will use the power of public opinion and make the most use of it possible in advancing reforms," he added.

Moin, like Khatami, represents a kinder, gentler Islamic Republic, one in which the Shiite Muslim faith would dominate because people choose to follow its tenets, not because they are made to. Both men prefer to settle differences and improve relations domestically and with the outside world through negotiation, especially with the United States.

"They need to know that they are dealing with an academic, and that I'll handle all of these political issues in a scientific way," he said, referring to Americans.

Like the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic Republic, Moin said he wants Iran to become a model for other Muslim countries to emulate.

His platform promises an Iran that would give more say to its citizens by "democratizing the structure of power" through political coalitions and boosting the role of "civil institutions," such as trade unions, which are now largely state-run.

Human rights would be a priority, including equal rights for ethnic and religious minorities. State monopolies would be dissolved in favor of privatization to spur economic growth.

Moin has made no mention of the United States by name, but Moin's vice-presidential running mate, Khatami's brother, Mohammad Reza Khatami, told reporters last week that a Moin presidency would change Iran's approach toward other nations from an ideological one to one based on how Iran's economy might be helped.

He also said that a Moin administration would consider continuing the moratorium on uranium enrichment, an unpopular stance with Iranians, but one that's key to keeping the Bush administration from asking the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, which would be devastating to the country's economy.

Moin said he has no plans to eliminate the ruling clerics, whose role is enshrined in the country's constitution.

"As president, I have to abide by the constitution and operate within its framework," Moin said. But if all parties abide by the rules within the Islamic Republic constitution, "it should solve a lot of problems."

Moin and his supporters remain hopeful that he'll pull a surprise victory as the once unknown Khatami did eight years ago. Advisers say he has a chance if voter turnout reaches 50 or 60 percent. Two political parties banned by the conservatives, including the Freedom Movement of Iran headed by Ebrahim Yazdi, who served as foreign minister under Khomeini, endorsed Moin on Monday.

If he loses, Moin said he'd be content to return to his life as a doctor and educator.

"We have a proverb in our country that says don't count your chickens before the end of fall," Moin said. "We won't count ours until June 17."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-ELECTION

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050606 IRAN ELECTION

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