Iran's Leader Sure To Win in Vote, But Snares Lie in Wait

ONE year after parliamentary elections sparked violent riots throughout this country, the Iranian authorities have choreographed a presidential campaign devoid of pomp, free debate, boisterous rallies - and suspense.

A rare public-opinion poll published earlier this week showed President Hashemi Rafsanjani moving comfortably toward victory in today's election, 40 points ahead of the nearest of his three approved challengers.

"It's kind of a non-election," remarked one Western diplomat here. "The only real question is whether Rafsanjani can credibly claim overwhelming popular support. The operative word here is `credibly.' "

Well before the presidential race began, the parliament weeded out candidates the ruling elite found unacceptable. Now, with Iran battling economic decline and international isolation, Mr. Rafsanjani faces a daunting array of real and potential threats.

"The economic problems that brought the troubles last year are even more intense now," says a Western diplomat. "There's no question that as the economy deteriorates the political situation will get worse."

Since his election in 1989, Rafsanjani has tried cautiously to steer his country toward more liberal political end economic policies. But the reforms have faltered.

During the parliamentary campaign last spring, protesters enraged by state corruption and worsening economic conditions rampaged through the streets of several cities, torching government buildings and burning pictures of Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, hero of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

THE riots came as a wake-up call for a regime that had long counted on broad support from a loyal - and closely monitored - public. Rafsanjani acted quickly to ensure that this year's presidential contest would result in a validation of his own authority.

But he also was forced to delay temporarily a package of economic reforms due to the popular pressure, a move that has since hit poor Iranians hard and swelled the ranks of his radical opponents.

Rajsanjani's economic reforms also bristled the religious elders, or mullahs, who gave the Iranian revolution its radical Islamic cast. The mullahs, led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, command the loyalty of a large segment of the population. Although Rafsanjani is still closely linked with the mullahs, he has tried to cultivate new political allies among the reemerging business and technocratic elite, a move that has dulled his populist image.

At the old bazaar in downtown Tehran, headquarters of Iran's powerful merchant class, shopkeepers speak guardedly of their preferences. The merchants wield tremendous political clout in Iran, but have largely sat out the campaign, comfortable that Rafsanjani will be reelected.

"The elections are very important for us in the bazaar," said Majid Ali, a spice merchant. When asked if he could recall the names of any of the candidates opposing the president, Mr. Ali reflected a minute, shook his head, and laughed. "I guess I'll have to vote for Rafsanjani."

The mullahs also have been angered by the president's long silence on the question of whether the fatwa issued by Khomeini against British writer Salman Rushdie remains in force after the Imam's death. Rafsanjani has said that he regards the fatwa as a "religious" matter.

Rafsanjani's efforts to improve ties with the West - particularly the United States - also have been stymied, both by the mullahs and by Washington.

The Clinton administration has shown a profound wariness of improving relations with a state it regards as an exporter of terrorism and a military threat to the region's stability.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher urged Washington's European allies Tuesday to undertake "strong, collective action" to oppose Iran's rearmament program. The Iranian military was badly weakened by its eight-year war with Iraq.

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