TEHRAN, Iran — To understand the true significance of Iran's presidential elections, look no further than a collection of modest brick buildings decorated with slogans from the Islamic Revolution. Here sits the country's real power — a power that will ride out any outcome Friday: the clerical regime that considers itself answerable only to God.
But international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions, close ties to the Shiite majority in Iraq and relentless at-home reform pressures have pushed the theocracy into a delicate joint stewardship. It must now give deference to the elected officials who represent Iran on the world stage and are accountable to voters.
The overriding question of Friday's election is whether these conservative "mullahcrats" will be forced to surrender some influence and allow the new president a freer hand to shape policies — possibly including new diplomatic overtures toward the United States.
"This isn't just about Iran," said political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand. "This is an election of international consequences."
No issue is bigger than the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.
The leading contender, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, has tried to use it as campaign leverage. He's promoted himself as the only candidate with the diplomatic touch and international experience to guide the sensitive negotiations.
On Tuesday in Vienna, Austria, the U.N.'s chief nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, urged Iran toward more cooperation. But in a report expected later this week, diplomats said Iran would be praised for freezing a key enrichment program that could be used to make nuclear arms. A European diplomat in Iran, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested Rafsanjani has played an important behind-the-scenes role.
Secret nuclear weapons program?
The United States claims Iran is secretly working on a nuclear weapons program in tandem with its first energy-producing reactor, scheduled to begin service early next year. Iran denies that and has ongoing contact with European envoys to end the impasse.
Rafsanjani says he would continue Iran's nuclear program, but promises not to seek an atomic bomb. He also pledges to "reciprocate" any goodwill gestures from the United States, which cut relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
In an interview Tuesday with CNN, he said "the time is right to open a new chapter in the relations with the United States" — if Washington shows "indications of good will so our society can trust them." He cited in particular the unfreezing of Iranian assets.
Rafsanjani "is the only person who can resolve Iran's nuclear dossier," the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, was quoted Tuesday as saying in the hard-line daily Jomhuri-e-Eslami.
But some Western analysts see a different Rafsanjani.
"He's the insider's insider," said Ehsan Ahrari, a Virginia-based political analyst who follows Islamic affairs.
If he wins, Rafsanjani thus could serve to consolidate the power of the theocrats, who have tolerated gradual social freedoms since the late 1990s but stymied the greater political openness pushed by outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.
Khatami's former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday that Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, blocked attempts by Khatami to make icebreaking diplomatic overtures to the United States — and suggested Khatami's successor would meet the same trouble.
"One of the main policies of the supreme leader is no ties with the United States, which he considers the No. 1 enemy of Iran," Abtahi said. "I don't think that will change."
Rafsanjani, 70, was a close aide of the Islamic revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and used his connections to head a massive family business empire that now includes an airline and the contract to expand Tehran's subway.
He served as president from 1989-97 — bowing out because of Iran's limit of two consecutive terms.
He is considered a key supporter of Iran's goal of becoming a regional power, including expanding oil and gas links and enhancements to the Shahab-3 ballistic missile, capable of reaching Israel.
He also is sympathetic to keeping Iran's position as a patron of fellow Shiite leaders in neighboring Iraq, such as the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
But Rafsanjani is also a pragmatist. He said last week that it is not wise to "anger" the United States.
Nevertheless, "the return of Rafsanjani would only strengthen the theocratic system and further marginalize the progressive voices," said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Muslim affairs at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.
It's already moving in that direction.
A threat of boycott
The core of Khatami's power base — young and middle-class voters seeking to weaken the ruling clerics — has threatened to boycott the election to protest the banning of nearly all liberals.
It could be a repeat of the February 2004 parliamentary election when slightly more than 50 percent voted, just 33 percent in the capital.
The message from another massive no-show would be clear: huge segments of Iran turning their backs on the regime and mocking its self-proclaimed stature as divinely inspired.
Ironically, however, the most prominent liberal candidate, Mostafa Moin, would likely feel the biggest bite from a boycott.
Meanwhile, the leading hard-liner candidate, former national police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, led a rally Tuesday promising the country more jobs.
In the 1990s, conservative candidates played heavily on Islamic themes. This campaign, religious slogans have been muted in a sign that even the most extreme fear their base is shrinking.
Says student activist Sajjad Qoroqi: "The middle class doesn't believe in this strict view of religion anymore."
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