Hardliners plot to frustrate Rafsanjani's bid for power

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The Independent Online

As Iran faces a choice between a conservative cleric and a hardliner in the presidential run-off, details emerged of a sophisticated campaign by fundamentalists that has put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in contention for the top office.

As Iran faces a choice between a conservative cleric and a hardliner in the presidential run-off, details emerged of a sophisticated campaign by fundamentalists that has put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in contention for the top office.

Although many Iranians still believe Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will easily win Friday's vote, the last-minute surge in support for the Tehran mayor has put the result in doubt.

Mr Ahmadinejad won decisive backing from the Islamic Basij militia, whose members were privately told to vote for him. Associates of rival fundamentalist Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf said in private that Basij commanders and right-leaning Friday prayer leaders told conservative families to switch their support to reflect shifting poll figures.

"In the days before the poll he benefited from some extensive and unusual facilities," former reformist vice-president, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, said. "They organised the armed forces, secured a fatwa in his support from [hardliner] Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi and used intimidation to reduce the reformist vote." As late as Thursday, the former Islamic Revolutionary Guard was trailing on 5 per cent support but staged a sudden shock run to take 19 per cent of the vote. A furious Mr Qalibaf is rumoured to have considered giving his support to the more moderate Mr Rafsanjani in protest at what he considers a betrayal.

But Mr Ahmadinejad's vote was already swelling. "He appeals to the blue collar workers and low-income classes by presenting himself as the champion of the poor," said Shirzad Bozorghmehr, the editor of the English language Iran News.

Mr Ahmadinejad was little known before he took control of Tehran city council in 2003, the first in a series of electoral setbacks for reformists. He had won plaudits for his efficient running of Ardebil province as governor general, and has spoken fiercely about protecting Iran's nuclear rights.

His tenure as Tehran mayor saw an increase in public spending on war veterans, the very poor and a campaign against corruption. But it also included attempts to roll back the greater freedoms won by the reformists. Mr Ahmadinejad is believed to be close to the Basij militia and Ansar-e Hizbollah, which shocked the world with their attacks on pro-reformist students in 1999 and 2003.

He also has a strong relationship with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If he wins Friday's run-off, the leader would enjoy unprecedented support among the country's top officials. The heads of the judiciary, Guardian Council, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and the speaker of parliament are close allies, and a fundamentalist president would further strengthen their hand. This could damage Iran's relations with the West and lead to greater crackdowns on freedom of speech and human rights.

Mr Rafsanjani campaigned against that possibility. Although he is close to the clerical elite, he regards the emergence of young hardliners as a challenge to his power and has fought them since the 1990s. His camp hopes to inherit all the reformist votes won by Mr Karroubi and Mostafa Moin, as well as non-voters in the first round.

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