Rafsanjani poll ratings drop in three-man race for Iran's presidency

Iran's presidential race is growing tighter by the hour in the approach to tomorrow's election, driven by a late reformist surge and opinion polls showing a decline in support for the favourite, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The former president now faces a three-horse race against the reformist Mostafa Moin and the populist hardliner Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf, with the top-ranked two likely to face off in a second-round ballot in two weeks' time.

Iranian opinion polls can be unscientific, but the general trend shows a return in reformist support that was unthinkable a few months ago when the movement was mired by voter disillusionment and frustration.

As Iranian conservatives responded to the improving fortunes of the reformist candidates, Mr Qalibaf was boosted last night by the late withdrawal of Mohsen Rezai, a hardliner who threatened to split conservative support. But another hardline candidate denied rumours that he was also about to withdraw.

At a rally in Tehran on Tuesday, thousands of exuberant reformists cheered as political dissidents and senior politicians rose to speak. "Do you hear that? It's the meaning of reformism," the outgoing President's brother, Mohammed Reza Khatami, told The Independent, as mainly youthful crowds applauded the first speaker. "Every hour the chances for Moin are increasing and if we go to the second round there are lots of silent voters who will start to speak."

Reformist speakers repeatedly played on difficult issues such as the status of political prisoners, appearing to accept they needed a bolder, more courageous agenda than that offered by the popular but sometimes timorous President Khatami to win back disappointed supporters. The loudest cheers came for Said Hajjarian, a former revolutionary turned reformist who was left badly disabled after an assassination attempt in 1999.

Mr Moin's own reception was less enthusiastic after a typically academic speech and crowds shouted: "We will vote for you for love of Hajjarian." Rapturous receptions were also given to Ebrahim Yazdi, the dissident leader of Iran's Freedom Movement and Mohsen Kadivar, a young clerical theoretician.

Across town conservatives were gathering for a gender-segregated rally by Mr Qalibaf, who sees himself as a fundamentalist - a populist conservative from the younger generation said to be close to the Supreme Leader. Undeniably charismatic himself, he has struggled to persuade voters that a political heavy-hitter lurks beneath his groomed exterior and macho appeal.

"I love Qalibaf - he's a pilot, he's courageous and he's in our hearts," shouted a young man wearing an Iran football shirt and with the national flag wrapped round his head. The mechanics student is the sort of voter the former police chief and sometime commercial airline pilot has targeted - young, working class and nationalist. He can also count on a big boost from voters in his home city of Mashhad in the east of the country.

But he has been hampered by the presence of other fundamentalist candidates and the conservative press has looked on with growing frustration as its political champions refused to unify. An editorial in Kayhan, the closest of the papers to the populist right, warned they could be "pulled from the seat of power" if some candidates did not withdraw.

The rift between the populist right and traditionalist conservatives who support Mr Rafsanjani has also increased, with the former president accused of abandoning social justice and populists accused of too-close ties to the military. While that could help boost his credentials on the left, it will also reduce his appeal as a candidate of national reconciliation.

Nuclear history revealed

Iran has acknowledged working with small amounts of plutonium, a possible nuclear arms component, for years longer than it had originally admitted, according to a confidential UN report. The report, to be delivered as early as today to the International Atomic Energy Agency, also said the Islamic republic received sensitive technology that can be used as part of a weapons programme earlier than it had admitted.The report, marked "highly confidential", suggested that some of the agency's investigations had stalled.