Iran Set For Friday's Presidential Election

The streets of Tehran are quiet Thursday for the first time in days. It's supposed to be a day of reflection before Friday's presidential election. Voters will choose between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fierce critic of the U.S., and his more moderate rivals.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. The streets of Tehran are quiet for the first time in days. This is supposed to be a quiet day of reflection before a presidential election tomorrow. The race has come down to two leading candidates. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seeking reelection. He's the conservative president famous in the West for his harsh remarks about Israel and the United States.

His leading challenger is a former Iranian prime minister. And that challenger's campaign drew giant crowds to the streets of the capital and other major cities the last several days. NPR's Mike Shuster has been watching those big rallies and he's on the line from Tehran.

Hi, Mike.

MIKE SHUSTER: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Have you, in your several years of covering Iran, ever seen anything quite like the demonstrations of the last several days?

SHUSTER: No, I haven't. In fact, I haven't hardly seen any demonstrations of any size in Iran over the past five years, which is the period of time that I've been coming here regularly. The situation in the streets has been simply out of control.

The demonstrations have been enormous. The level of emotion has been incredibly intense. Thousands of people have been demonstrating day and night, never stopping, in effect - at least over the last few days since I got here on the weekend. They are mostly the forces in favor of Mousavi, the challenger. Although President Ahmadinejad has been able to muster significantly large crowds.

And the other thing that's quite amazing, Steve, is that there's no police presence at all. In effect, the local government has lost control of the streets in Tehran and other cities as well. The police are not in evidence. And essentially it's the young people and women who have taken over Tehran and are demonstrating in favor of Mousavi and change in Iran.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you mention women. We're hearing elsewhere on the program from a women's rights activist about the role of women in this campaign. I'm curious, Mike, if when you talk to these demonstrators and people at political rallies, if you find people who are themselves surprised that so many of them have showed up on the streets.

SHUSTER: I think that they are, almost down to the last person, astounded by what they're participating in. I think none of them ever thought that this would grow into a movement and it would be as large as it's been.

And the other thing that's really extraordinary is what they say about Ahmadinejad in public. Over the past five years you haven't heard people in public say even moderately critical things, let alone hostile things. But these crowds are chanting with a kind of vitriol and venom against Ahmadinejad that's amazing, calling him a liar, calling him a dictator. It shows the depth of how fed up many people are in Iran with his policies over the past four years.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Mike Shuster in Tehran, where tomorrow is voting day. And Mike, will it be a fair election?

SHUSTER: It's a really big question, Steve. For one thing, the interior ministry controls the ballot counting. And the interior ministry is in Ahmadinejad's government.

Another example: last night Ahmadinejad was given a half hour of free TV time because the Iranian Broadcasting Company thought he was unfairly treated by his rivals during the debates here. There's opportunities for cheating everywhere. And everyone - many people suspect that there could be cheating, suspect that there was cheating in the last election four years ago.

Much of the situation will depend on the turnout. If the turnout is really large and there's a big gap between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad, with Mousavi in the lead, it's unlikely that they'll be able to manipulate the outcome.

INSKEEP: Well, Mike, if President Ahmadinejad manages to keep his job, whether it's unfairly or fairly for that matter, what happens to all those people who've turned out and demonstrated and denounced him in the streets?

SHUSTER: I think that's a big question. I think that there will be additional disillusionment that will set in, but there also will be anger. And the converse, what happens if Ahmadinejad loses, Mousavi wins and Ahmadinejad's supporters, who are quite bitter and angry - I was in a huge crowd of them a few days ago and there's a subtext of anger there - whether they and the powers that be will allow Mousavi to take power, that's a big question as well.

INSKEEP: NPR's Mike Shuster is in Tehran covering Iran's presidential election. Mike, thanks very much.

SHUSTER: Thank you, Steve.

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Iran's Election: What's At Stake For The U.S.?

Ahmadinejad supporters at an election rally in Tehran i i

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad display a poster during an election rally on June 9 in Tehran. The campaign has generated widespread excitement in Iran. Majid/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Majid/Getty Images
Ahmadinejad supporters at an election rally in Tehran

Supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad display a poster during an election rally on June 9 in Tehran. The campaign has generated widespread excitement in Iran.

Majid/Getty Images
A supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi i i

A supporter holds a picture of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during an election rally on June 9 in Tehran. Mousavi is campaigning as a reformist. Majid/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Majid/Getty Images
A supporter of Mir Hossein Mousavi

A supporter holds a picture of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi during an election rally on June 9 in Tehran. Mousavi is campaigning as a reformist.

Majid/Getty Images

Iran's presidential election on Friday is generating unusual excitement, with massive rallies and demonstrations for the four candidates, including incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, pro-reform Mir Hossein Mousavi.

The election results could have a significant impact on relations with the United States and on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear program to Tehran's influences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Observers expect a strong turnout in a political climate so volatile that few are willing to predict the result.

There is a chance that no candidate will gain the 50 percent of the vote needed for a first-round win. In that case, the top two vote getters will face each other in a runoff a week later.

Here's a look at the candidates, the issues and the stakes for the U.S.

The Field

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — The 52-year-old incumbent is running for a second term. He won his first term in 2005 with a populist campaign that garnered support from religious conservatives and rural and working-class voters. He has stirred controversy at home over his economic policies and rancor from abroad with denunciations of Israel and the U.S. He has defied the United Nations with a stepped-up nuclear program that the U.S. suspects is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon.

Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, notes that no incumbent Iranian president has ever lost a bid for a second term, but she says this election is likely to serve as a referendum on Ahmadinejad's personality and his controversial policies.

Political polling inside Iran has been notoriously unreliable, but a new poll conducted by telephone from outside the country finds that 34 percent of Iranians surveyed say they favor Ahmadinejad. Ken Ballen, the president of Terror Free Tomorrow: The Center for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey along with the New America Foundation think tank, notes that only 14 percent support Ahmadinejad's nearest rival, but he says that 27 percent are undecided and many of those indicated they supported government reforms. The poll was conducted by the firm KA Europe SPRL May 11-20, with 1,001 interviews proportionally distributed over all 30 provinces of Iran. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mir Hossein Mousavi — The 67-year-old, pro-reform Mousavi was prime minister during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and is well-regarded by many older Iranians who see him as having guided the country through a time of crisis. Iran's former President Mohammad Khatami withdrew his own candidacy for president in March and threw his support to Mousavi, saying he didn't want to divide the votes of pro-reformists.

Analysts say that Mousavi's main weakness is that he has been out of politics for decades and has only recently become well known among younger voters. Although Mousavi's poll numbers are lower than Ahmadinejad's, Maloney says she takes all poll results with a grain of salt. "We're absolutely in a stage where it's impossible to predict a winner," she says.

In a debate on Iranian television, Mousavi blasted Ahmadinejad for reckless spending and a combative foreign policy that has left the country isolated.

Mehdi Karroubi — Karroubi is a 72-year-old Shiite cleric and a former speaker of Iran's Parliament. Known as an advocate of civil rights and especially of women's rights, Karroubi is considered a very long shot for the presidency, with only about 2 percent in the Terror Free Tomorrow poll. Maloney says he has been organizing reformist opposition to Ahmadinejad in the form of a new political party and a newspaper. She says Karroubi may have enough support to split the pro-reform vote, a situation that could doom Mousavi.

Mohsen Rezai — The former commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, 55-year-old Rezai is running as a conservative. He has challenged Ahmadinejad for questioning the Holocaust and denying Israel's right to exist, but Rezai's own son has accused him of involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, an attack that killed 85 people. Rezai is officially wanted by Interpol in connection with that bombing and for alleged human right violations in Iran.

The Issues

Iran's Economy — Despite its status as a major oil exporter, Iran suffers 25 percent inflation and high unemployment. Ahmadinejad's opponents say he has mismanaged the economy, spending heavily without a coherent plan. "Iranians, like most people, do vote on bread-and-butter issues," says Maloney. "By any measure, life is not better in Iran now than it was in 2005."

Maloney notes that Ahmadinejad's spending has broadened his political base, especially outside the cities. Ballen says that his group's polling shows a drop in the number of Iranians who think the country's economy is headed in the right direction —from 42 percent a year ago to 33 percent now. "But the good news for Ahmadinejad is that people seem to be about equally divided as to whether he should be held responsible for the economic problems," Ballen says.

Mousavi often takes credit for keeping Iran's economy afloat during the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran's Nuclear Program — Ahmadinejad has refused to end Iran's nuclear enrichment program, despite U.N. resolutions and sanctions against it. He says Iran's program is designed only for peaceful purposes and has called nuclear weapons "against our religion." Although Ahmadinejad is closely associated with the nuclear program in the eyes of the West, his office doesn't actually set Iran's nuclear policy. That is decided by the Supreme National Security Council, which is controlled by Iran's supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Relations With Other Countries — Ahmadinejad has been roundly criticized for rhetoric in which he called for the destruction of Israel and appeared to deny that the Holocaust ever happened. At various times he has tried to qualify these comments, but Mousavi blasted him for them in their televised debate earlier this month. Ahmadinejad shot back that Mousavi had called for the destruction of Israel when he was prime minister.

The U.S. and other countries accuse Iran of supporting terrorist groups and militias in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. At a rally at Isfahan University in May, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of "disgracing" the Iranian nation with his "thoughtless policies."

The Terror Free Tomorrow poll found that Iranians have a generally negative view of Israel. Only a quarter of those surveyed said that Iran should enter a peace treaty recognizing Israel, even if an independent Palestinian state is established. More than 60 percent supported the government for providing funding to Shiite militias in Iraq, as well as groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Implications For U.S. Foreign Policy — Regardless of who wins, the Obama administration will need to be careful, analysts say. In an article written for the Saban Center, Maloney says the administration must walk a fine line between criticizing Iran's constraints on democratic elections and recognizing that the presidential votes have strong popular participation.

She also cautions against welcoming any possible reformist victory too enthusiastically, saying a U.S. "embrace of any individual Iranian politician would likely taint him and limit his room for maneuver."

Ballen says his poll results show that regardless of who wins, the Iranian people are open to better relations with the West.

"What's interesting is not the horse race aspect of it, but what the Iranian people really think," Ballen says. "They're not giving [their leaders] a mandate for belligerent policies or rhetoric."

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