TEHRAN, Iran—A glimpse of presidential contender Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's vision for Iran is captured in the fading red paint slapped onto the cool gray marble facade of northern Tehran's Art Cultural Center.
"Group prayer inside the gallery," the painted message informs passers-by, a reminder of the archconservative mayor's failed attempt 18 months ago to convert the city's cultural havens into outlets for Islamic fundamentalism during the holy month of Ramadan.
Ahmadinejad's surprise second-place finish last Friday—barely 2 percentage points behind front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70—illustrates that he and other fundamentalists in Iran's conservative coalition have emerged from their pariah status of a few years ago to claim popular support.
When Ahmadinejad tried to convert the cultural center, Tehran residents, like most Iranians, believed in the prospect of political, social and economic reform heralded by President Mohammad Khatami. They rejected Ahmadinejad's plan, when he was appointed mayor in 2003, to restore Iranian unity and pride by returning to the patriarchal system and strict Shiite Muslim tenets of the Islamic Republic's early days.
Today, with Khatami leaving office, reforms stalled and hopes of a more liberal Iran dashed, Ahmadinejad, 49, has a second chance to put his ideas into practice, this time on a national level.
At stake in Friday's runoff election between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad isn't who should run Iran, but what path the country takes, said conservative analyst Amir Mohebian, the political editor of the daily newspaper Resalat, who plans to vote for Rafsanjani.
"Everybody will be choosing between radicalism and moderation," he said.
Iran's moderates—including key reformers—are lining up to endorse Rafsanjani, a conservative but relatively pragmatic cleric, in a scramble to persuade apathetic voters who skipped last week's elections to turn out for Friday's second round and defeat Ahmadinejad.
Even Khatami has implicitly endorsed Rafsanjani, a former president whom some pro-democracy students here used to call "Iran's Pinochet"—a reference to Chile's former strongman—for his reputation as a shady tycoon who cracked down on political dissidents.
They worry that an Ahmadinejad presidency would further isolate Iran from the West, increase tension with the United States, chase away foreign investors and quash hard-won personal freedoms, including limited free speech, relaxed Islamic dress for women and access to non-Islamic culture, including Western movies and music.
"The country will go backward, which is unacceptable," said veteran sociologist Hamid Reza Jalaipour, who served as an adviser to defeated pro-reform presidential candidate Mostafa Moin. "We revolutionaries have all walked this road, and it's time to move forward."
Jalaipour predicted that Ahmadinejad would increase the antagonism between rich and poor, shut down newspapers that challenge the party line and, if he's able to get away with it, silence reformers such as himself.
On Saturday, when Ahmadinejad was asked what he planned to do about political and social reforms, he said, without elaboration, that the "weak ones would be removed."
While some Iranians say they're frightened of Ahmadinejad and the black-clad "Basiji," or civil militias, which they fear will flood the streets to enforce his views, others have embraced the nostalgia that he's awakened for the Islamic revolution.
The conservative, poor working class, which Ahmadinejad hails from and which makes up a majority of Iran's 70 million people, appears to support him. Hopes for a better life have turned into resentment of the educated and wealthy Iranians who've emerged during the last 16 years under Khatami's and Rafsanjani's presidencies.
Since last Friday's election, Iran's hard-line, anti-Western powerbrokers are united in supporting Ahmadinejad. They include Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters under the constitution; his 12-member Guardian Council, which holds veto power over the electoral process; the elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basiji.
They view the Tehran mayor, who was little known outside the capital until recently, as their best chance to consolidate power and end the dissent within Iran's government, which grew during Khatami's two terms in office.
Ahmadinejad isn't just a religious radical. He's also honed his reputation as an honest and accessible mayor who's made strides in cleansing city hall of cronyism.
"The gutters were open and there were a lot of mice and it was very dirty," recalled Shima Sharabi, 21, a former Khatami voter who voted for Ahmadinejad in the southern Tehran neighborhood of Shush last Friday. "He closed the gutters and planted trees. My downtown became very beautiful."
Ahmadinejad has capitalized on the emerging popular sentiment and billed himself as the "spirit and scent" of Mohammad Ali Rajai, the fundamentalist president who was assassinated in 1981.
Mindful of the fear he's generated, Ahmadinejad and his aides have sought to soften his radical image. They've taken to the airwaves to pledge that women's rights wouldn't be touched and foreign investment would be encouraged, among other things.
"There's no room for hostility," he said Saturday, extending an olive branch to his rivals. "We are a big nation, and today we need sympathy and brotherhood more than in the past."
He's even publicly softened his position on the United States, saying in an Iranian television interview Tuesday night that he's open to relations with any country except Israel.
All of which makes Friday's election too difficult to call. At the cultural center in northern Tehran, three female architecture students, for example, while believing that Ahmadinejad would quickly curtail their access to education and segregate them from male students, were split on whether to go to the polls.
"We feel obligated to vote. Otherwise the situation will get worse," said Sogol Jourablou, 21, who like her friends didn't take part in the election last week.
But her friend Maryam Tavakolirad, 22, said she wouldn't vote this Friday, either, because a victory by radical clerics would hasten the downfall of religious conservatives and make reform possible.
"To some extent, you have to put up with the hardship for change to come faster," she said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050622 IRAN ELECTION
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