Voters in Iran to Decide Islam's Political Clout

The election strategy has a familiar ring. The "liberal" candidate seeks to woo the vast women's vote, target minority groups, and perhaps appeal to the popular imagination with a Clintonesque cross-country bus journey.

Is this a rerun of American elections past? Far from it. These are the goals of Iran's political strategists as they plan for presidential elections due to be held May 23.

Mohammed Khatami is the underdog in an electoral battle against the front-runner, conservative Speaker of Parliament Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, in the most significant and free election to be held here since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

At stake is the future of Iran, a nation of 64 million led by Islamic Shiite clerics that is both a strategic power in a region rich in oil and natural gas and a sworn enemy of the United States.

Voters will choose between conservatives bent on tightening the grip of the religious leaders, the mullahs, on daily life, or "radical" reformers who want to open up Iran politically.

Aides to Mr. Khatami, a former minister of culture whose tenure is remembered fondly by artists and intellectuals as the "Golden Era" - say that he will seek at least "dtente" for Iran with the West.

But as much as opponents of Mr. Nateq-Nouri try to win women, youths, and minority votes with promises of more political rights, none discounts the power of mosque and prayer leaders to dictate the outcome. Conservative clerics run a "phenomenal political machine," says a Western diplomat.

In past elections, the outcome was seen as a foregone conclusion, and a vote against Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current president and a "reformer" in Iran's right-weighted political lexicon, was considered "a vote against God."

"Support from the clergy plays a crucial role in these elections," says one Khatami aide. "And they support Nateq-Nouri. This is a huge problem for every other contender."

Still, a strong performance by Khatami could force a runoff election, and increased voter turnout would likely favor his campaign.

Emotional politics in Tehran mosques makes clear the power that springs from worn prayer carpets and the Islamic soapbox. During a service March 12 to mark the second anniversary of the death of the son of the late Imam Ayatollah Khomeini - who led the revolution - men wept at his memory.

A 'symbol of rationality'

Khatami attended, leaning against the marble wall with the crowd and listening to sung invocations of Islamic Shia prophets. But this area of southern Tehran is a power base for Nateq-Nouri - and Khatami has his work cut out to appeal to the pocketbook of voters who worry that he will end subsidies on gasoline and other goods.

Gas here costs a few cents a gallon, and riots broke out two years ago when prices were raised 30 percent. Recognizing that most young, unemployed voters might not go for Nateq-Nouri's pro-merchant policies, which create few jobs, in contrast with Khatami's proposals, his supporters are trying to boost the appeal of hard-line clerics.

"Khatami can communicate with the young," says one government worker. "He is the symbol of rationality in the system."

A nod of support from either President Rafsanjani or Iran's spiritual head Ayatollah Ali Khameini - to whose infallible leadership each candidate must demonstrate allegiance - could clinch the election.

Both men say they will remain neutral, but it is no secret that Khatami is close to Rafsanjani, and Nateq-Nouri is allied to the right-wing Ayatollah Khameini.

Still, Khatami has scored a useful coup of his own. He recently won the endorsement of the influential Servants of the Reconstruction, a group that includes Tehran's popular and left-leaning mayor. Rafsanjani is barred by the Constitution from running for a third four-year term in office.

Diplomats say that they cannot gauge how much power the new president will have, because Rafsanjani's political strength is so much due to his personality.

Issues that are likely to dog any new leader, however, will be the current deadlock in relations with the United States - Iran's staunchest ally during the reign of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi - which considers Iran a terrorist state.

Europe's policy of maintaining a "critical dialogue" with Iran, despite American sanctions and accusations that the Islamic state is seeking nuclear weapons, long-range ballistic missiles, and weapons of mass destruction, will soon be put to the test by a court case in Germany.

German prosecutors have named Iranian officials in a probe of the 1992 killing of Iranian opposition figures at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin. If they are indicted, diplomats say, the row could force a severing of ties.

And the death sentence on the British novelist Salman Rushdie for his book "The Satanic Verses" was recently reconfirmed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Despite Rafsanjani's official distance from the issue, an Islamic "charity" has added $500,000 to the $2-million bounty on Mr. Rushdie's life.

Though Iran's executive post may be up for grabs, the transformation of 2,500 years of monarchy to democracy is far from complete.

For Ebrahim Yazdi, head of the opposition Freedom Movement of Iran, who is also running for president, democracy is a relative term. "We are the opposition, but our newspaper is banned, they don't permit us any facilities, our meetings are attacked by pressure groups, and our supporters are in prison," he says.

Voters 'think of heaven'

The agenda for the "rightists" under Nateq-Nouri is simple, he says. In religion, they are "backward, reactionary, and narrow-minded"; politically, "they don't believe in any kind of democracy. It is against Islam to them, so it is blasphemy. They want complete, totalitarian control."

Mr Yazdi's bid to be a candidate must be approved by an Islamic council that prevented his party from running in elections last year. Approval is unlikely, one Iranian analyst says, "because a vote for him means a vote against the government."

Even if Yazdi is not allowed to run, Iran's elections mirror US ones in one way: Voters here make flippant choices. A journalist uses his father as an example of the power of Islam in Iran. "People vote against logic or reason," he says. "I can convince my father to vote for a candidate, and he trusts me. But if a cleric at the mosque tells him to vote differently, he tells me: 'What you say is correct, but I am thinking of the day after, in heaven.' "

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