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Front-runner in Iran praises Islamic government, embraces reform

TEHRAN, Iran—Is presidential front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani a champion of Iran's conservative Islamic establishment? Or is he a reform-minded cleric who'll ease social restrictions on the country's beleaguered youth, improve relations with the United States and boost Iran's flagging economy?

Rafsanjani is all of the above, according to his three-week campaign, which officially ended Wednesday.

On Monday, for example, young, pretty campaign volunteers wearing makeup—forbidden under the country's Islamic-based law—distributed Rafsanjani literature to drivers stuck in northern Tehran traffic, even as the 70-year-old cleric praised the Islamic government to fundamentalist audiences at nearby meeting halls with separate entrances for men and women.

The mixed messages haven't detracted from Rafsanjani's support among many Iranians headed to the polls Friday. While he doesn't appear to command the majority needed to win the race in the first round, he's the most popular of the seven candidates who remain in the race. Various Iranian polls have predicted he'll win at least 27 percent of the votes.

Former Revolutionary Guard Commander Mohsen Rezaei withdrew from the race Wednesday to avoid splitting the conservative vote, according to state-run television. He didn't immediately endorse any of the remaining candidates.

Rafsanjani's supporters hail from across the political spectrum, including the more liberal, pro-reform camp that twice voted for departing President Mohammad Khatami and fundamentalists who embrace the authority of the Islamic Republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Many likely voters say they think that Rafsanjani, who served two terms as president after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, is the only candidate who's capable of propelling their country out of economic stagnation while keeping in check the conservative, unelected clerics who wield most of the power. Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, which mediates disputes between the Majlis, or parliament, and the powerful, unelected Guardian Council.

Rafsanjani has capitalized on that image, distributing millions of campaign leaflets that pledge "action, instead of slogans."

His advisers say he'll decrease government interference in people's private lives, promote Iran's nuclear program for peaceful purposes, seek detente with the United States and privatize Iran's economy, of which 40 to 85 percent is in state hands, depending on who's counting.

Among his proposals is a gradual increase in Iran's per capita income from $5,000 to $15,000 per year, welcome news in a country in which two-thirds of the people are younger than 30 and underemployed.

"If we called my last presidential term `Reconstruction One,' then we should call the upcoming one `Reconstruction Two,'" he told jubilant supporters Monday night at a religious hall in northern Tehran.

It's surprising that Rafsanjani has garnered so much good will, considering what voters think of him. Many who plan to vote for him say they still believe that he acquired vast wealth through corruption and shady deals, charges he's denied repeatedly.

Of Iran's 46.8 million eligible voters, roughly half are expected to turn out, Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari said Wednesday.

Amir Mohebian, the political editor of the Iranian newspaper Resalat ("Prophecy"), said that conservative leaders, while sharing Rafsanjani's ideology, didn't want him to become president because he was so powerful.

"In politics, sharing the cake is never good," Mohebian said. "But if they back Mr. Rafsanjani, it means sharing the cake."

Rafsanjani has been so unpopular at times that in 2000 he came in a humiliating 30th in the race for Tehran's 30 elected representatives to the Majlis. He decided not to take the seat.

But today, many Iranians argue that only Rafsanjani, whose religious rank is just one step below ayatollah, can push the country forward. He'll fight to curb corruption and improve the nation's standard of living, they say.

Talah, 23, a Rafsanjani campaign volunteer who said she voted for Khatami in 2001, said she so firmly believed in her candidate's ability to turn the conservative establishment around that she'd spent 12 hours a day since late May hawking bumper stickers and pamphlets to drivers and passers-by.

"Mr. Rafsanjani has the power to put into practice what he says," said Talah, an unemployed actress who refused to give her last name, fearing her parents would find out what she's been doing. "We don't only want freedom, we need to improve the economy, and he can do that."

Mohsen Kadivar, a pro-reform political analyst, believes that such thinking is flawed. People shouldn't forget that Rafsanjani is a pillar of the very establishment that many Iranians are fed up with, said Kadivar, a dissident cleric who's spent time in jail for his staunch advocacy of political and social reform.

"It was Rafsanjani himself who said, `No one in the past 45 years is closer to the supreme leader than I,'" Kadivar said.

Rafsanjani reiterated his close ties to Khamenei in an interview Tuesday with CNN. He recited the long-standing conservative demand that the United States release millions of dollars in Iranian assets that were frozen after the fall of shah.

He also is firm that Iran won't give up enriching nuclear material, something the Bush administration is demanding.

Still, analysts say Rafsanjani won't be able to ignore the growing Iranian clamor for an end to their nation's pariah status.

To that end, Rafsanjani has a multi-year plan to end hostilities with the United States, according to Mohammad Atrianfar, the editor of the newspaper Shargh ("East").

The first part will involve toning down anti-American slogans such as "Death to America," he said, adding that he hopes the Bush administration will reciprocate by avoiding calling Iran part of an "Axis of Evil" or calling for overthrowing the Islamic Republic. Meetings between the heads of lower level ministries as well as members of Congress and the Majlis would follow eventually.

Said Rafsanjani in the CNN interview: "If America is sincere in its cooperation in working with Iran, I think the time is right to open a new chapter in our relations."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent Saeed Kousha contributed to this report.)


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

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

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