Iran's Election, Nuclear Diplomacy in the Shadow of War

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, May 26, 2005; 10:05 AM

Domestic politics and international diplomacy converge in the shadow of war in Iran as the Middle East's most populous country prepares to decide its future.

In Iran's diverse online media, the nation of 65 million people appears politically divided as it prepares to vote for a new president on June 17. Conservative exhortations for political unity are matched by reports of reformist anger and widespread apathy.

At a meeting in Geneva on Wednesday, Iran again pledged not to seek nuclear weapons, according to early wire reports. But many commentators are skeptical that Europe's efforts to reconcile deeply suspicious governments in Tehran and Washington can succeed without hard-to-imagine concessions from both sides. As a result, analysts continue to weigh the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

In the political arena, Iran's hardliners find themselves on the defensive, even as they dominate the government. By all accounts, the front-runner in Iran's presidential race is former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom the Iran News describes as a " pragmatic conservative" and who is running to save the country from "extremists."

"Rafsanjani, a 70-year-old cleric, is seen as a capable deal-maker who favors improved ties with the West and economic liberalization -- something that may lure voters tired of Iran's international isolation and high unemployment," the Tehran news site says.

Rafsanjani was among six candidates approved to run for office Monday by hard-line clerics. When the two leading reformist parties protested the exclusion of their candidates, the clerics relented and allowed them on the ballot "in response to an order from leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei," according to the Iran Daily.

The reformist editors of the Iran News say the more popular of the two candidates, former education minister Mostafa Moin now faces a difficult decision: whether to "accept Ayatollah Khamenei's executive order and throw his hat into the ring or decline in order to protest the fact he was disqualified in the first place." Moin, who is given little chance of winning, says he will make his decision by this weekend.

Earlier this month, two leading clerics expressed doubts that elections could deliver on "promises of liberty," according to aljazeera.net. In a front-page editorial, Iran Daily columnist Amin Sabooni wrote that the hardliners are " making a mockery of public opinion."

"We are at a juncture in our history when an era is coming to an end and producing new challenges not only in the country, but also across the globe. Introspection is the need of the day if the powers that be do not want to totally, and maybe irreversibly, alienate themselves from the people whom they claim, at all times, to represent," he wrote.

On the diplomatic front, Iran now must decide whether to accept detailed proposals from France, Germany and Great Britain on implementing a previous deal to suspend uranium enrichment activities. In return, the Western powers are offering economic assistance.

"Chief Iranian negotiator Hasan Rohani said an agreement could be reached 'within a reasonably short time.' But a decision would be taken in Tehran," according to the BBC.

One of the economic goals that Iran is seeking is membership in the World Trade Organization. Iran's WTO membership will come up for a vote for the 23rd time in June, say the editors of the Iran News. All 22 previous attempts were blocked by the United States. On Tuesday, the editors say, the United States added two new conditions: holding free and democratic elections and abandoning its atomic program.


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