Very different opponents race for Iranian presidency

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Slapping posters on passing cars and pressing leaflets on passers-by, campaign workers filled the streets of Tehran early Thursday in the closing hours of Iran’s toughest presidential race since the 1979 revolution.
The two main candidates — a hard-liner backed by the clergy and military and his more moderate opponent — offered Iranians a distinct choice for the future of their Islamic republic.
Many young people worked through the night to get out the vote for comparative moderate Mohammad Khatami, who they hope will block the Islamic clergy from tightening already rigorous religious controls on society.
“Vote for Khatami, he’s our man!” students shouted to drivers at Tajrish Square in fashionable north Tehran.
Young people make up an influential voter bloc in Iran, where half the people were born after the revolution that imposed a strict Islamic regime.
In a society where everything from satellite dishes to dating is banned as harmful Western influences, many younger Iranians fear further restrictions of their social freedoms.
“I want Khatami to win because I want to continue wearing my blue jeans,” said Amir-Reza Fattoushi, a 21-year-old campaign volunteer in the square.
Thursday morning was the deadline for campaigning in the election, seen as the first since 1979 to offer a real contest to the country’s 60 million people. Excitement in Iran appears greater than at any time since the revolution that overthrew the U.S.-supported shah and his secular regime.
Judging by crowd size at rallies, the leading candidate appears to be Khatami, a former culture minister. His main rival is the speaker of Parliament, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, who has the support of the clergy, the military and powerful merchants.
Two other candidates, expected to win just a fraction of the votes, are also vying to replace moderate President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who must step down in August after two four-year terms.
Everyone over 15 can vote, making 33 million people eligible.
No one is predicting a sea change in the Islamic republic. But Nateq-Nouri wants stricter enforcement of the social code that governs almost all aspects of everyday life. Under Nateq-Nouri, for example, women might be more closely monitored to make sure their veils completely cover their hair.
Many voters suspect more religious education would be required in schools under Nateq-Nouri, and that comparatively liberal professors might lose their jobs.
Although also a cleric, Khatami is widely seen as an alternative to the stricter mullahs who have ruled Iran since 1979. Nateq-Nouri’s backers have depicted Khatami as a pro-Western cleric not sufficiently committed to the revolution. Khatami’s backers say he wants good relations with Western nations — except the United states.
“A better tomorrow for Islamic Iran,” say color campaign portraits of Khatami pasted on virtually every wall in Tehran.
His portraits are taped on thousands of cars in the traffic-jammed streets — even on windshields. A bus he used for a campaign tour around the country is covered with dents and scratches from the crush of crowds.
On Wednesday, 10,000 cheering Khatami supporters packed the Afsariyeh Mosque in western Tehran, while thousands more spilled out onto the streets. The crowd was so big that several of the mosque’s windows were shattered by the press of people.
By comparison, a campaign rally for Nateq-Nouri earlier this week drew just 3,000 supporters — not enough to fill the small sports stadium where it was held.
Nateq-Nouri’s presence is most visible in major Tehran squares, where giant yellow banners hang with his portrait.
The two other candidates are Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, a former intelligence minister, and Syed Reza Zavareie, the deputy head of the judiciary. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two candidates will meet in a runoff a week later.
Rafsanjani has warned Iranians against trying to tamper with the vote. He declared Thursday that “the people can have complete faith that their votes will not be changed.”