Ahmadinejad's Election Rivals in Iran Differ on Nuclear Program, Israel, U.S.

A Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rally in Tehran.
A Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rally in Tehran. "His resistance against world powers makes us proud," a supporter says. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
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By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 23, 2009

SEMNAN, Iran -- Firefighters sprayed a fine mist over the crowd, trying to cool the cheering masses waiting in the hot sun for their candidate in Iran's June 12 presidential election.

The men were on the left, thousands of them, sleeves rolled up and fists in the air. The women were on the right, a black-clad throng separated from the men, according to Shiite tenets. They pressed forward, nearly pinning Feresteh Mehrabani, 18, against a fence in front of the stage as an announcer introduced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man they had flocked to see, as the "spring flower of Iran."

Mehrabani shielded her brown eyes from the sun to gaze up at the candidate.

"His resistance against world powers makes us proud of our country," she said. "Other leaders are afraid of his truths."

The "truths" that have made Ahmadinejad a populist success-- including his strongly worded defense of Iran's nuclear program, his declared ambition to make Iran one of the world's most powerful nations, his repeated denials of the Holocaust and his threats against Israel -- have also become major issues in his campaign for reelection to a second four-year term.

Iran's elections have a history of surprises, with unknown candidates suddenly ending as victors. Ahmadinejad's challengers are backed by a coalition of prominent Muslim clerics and veteran Iranian politicians who oppose Ahmadinejad's policies both at home and abroad, turning this election into an unusually stark confrontation between two political factions with opposing views of the future of Iran.

Ahmadinejad's main challengers advocate better relations with the United States. They promise to ensure that Iran's nuclear program will have strictly peaceful purposes, and they say the Holocaust should not be an issue in Iranian politics.

"Ahmadinejad's comments on the Holocaust were a great service to Israel," Mehdi Karroubi, a cleric and the most outspoken opposition candidate, told a group of students in April. "What has happened that we now have to support Hitler?" he asked. "This is none of our business."

Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister who is backed mainly by Tehran's educated urban elite, has stressed that he would calm international opposition to Iran's nuclear program by providing guarantees -- which he has not specified -- that Iran will not turn its research on atomic energy into an effort to build nuclear weapons.

A third challenger, Mohsen Rezai, was the Revolutionary Guard's commander in chief during the long Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and is probably the closest to Ahmadinejad in ideology. He has said he would talk to President Obama if conditions were right.

All the candidates, including Ahmadinejad, have pledged to continue Iran's efforts to enrich uranium, despite U.N. sanctions. All of them share hostility toward Israel. But the challengers say Iran should reach out to other nations and soften the tone of its foreign policy, which is largely set by the country's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. During a visit to Iran's Kurdish region this month, Khamenei urged voters not to support "pro-Western" candidates.

When Ahmadinejad finally walked onto the stage here on Wednesday, he made clear that he was no supporter of the West. Mehrabani, the 18-year-old student, screamed with excitement as he waved at the crowd. Some women behind her threw flower petals at the stage, while others held out handwritten letters asking for financial help or other assistance from the president. Ahmadinejad, wearing his signature gray worker's coat, gave a long speech, repeatedly implying that his opponents are weak, cowardly and not steadfast against the West.

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