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Ahmadinejad's Election Rivals in Iran Differ on Nuclear Program, Israel, U.S.
"Some have made a forced, disgraceful agreement. They thought we should retreat in the face of the West and its weapons," Ahmadinejad said, referring to Iran's agreement in 2003 to temporarily suspend its uranium enrichment efforts and allow international inspectors to seal the enrichment equipment. When Ahmadinejad came to power two years later, he immediately restarted the enrichment program.
"We told the International Atomic Energy Agency, 'Remove those seals or we will do it and mail them to you,' " he said, as the crowd exploded into shouts of "Vote Ahmadinejad!"
For all their differences over foreign policy, however, Iran's incumbent president and his challengers are even more sharply at odds over domestic priorities. Ahmadinejad has appealed to the country's downtrodden, particularly the rural poor, promising to raise their salaries and pensions. He has even handed out potatoes.
"I hear you want lower rents," he told the rally in Semnan, the capital of an arid province 125 miles east of Tehran. "I will make sure that housing projects are speeded up." He added that his government would start 28 projects to boost employment, build 16 sports complexes -- "the first eight for women!" -- and create a special economic zone in Semnan.
"What about the closure of schools in the villages?" someone yelled.
"We will take care of it," he promised.
Ahmadinejad's opponents contend that his populist efforts to redistribute wealth among Iran's 67 million people have caused high inflation, slower economic growth and a steep rise in unemployment. Mousavi draws support primarily from Iran's disgruntled urban class, though traditionally it has a low turnout rate in elections. Karroubi is well known in some rural areas and also appeals to students and urban professionals who want more personal freedoms, including less interference in how Iranians dress, associate in public and court members of the opposite sex.
Both Mousavi's and Karroubi's election platforms, however, are vague compared with Ahmadinejad's strong rhetoric and financial handouts. They call for more personal freedoms, vow to reinstall key officials ousted by Ahmadinejad's government and want to end intrusive patrols by the morality police. Their main selling point, though, is that they are not Ahmadinejad.
"There is not that much distinction between the two challengers. Both want a change from this government," said Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, a former mayor of Tehran who now heads Karroubi's campaign.
"We are gathered here because of the worries over the future of our country," Mousavi said after he took the stage during a recent election rally in Tehran. "We are worried for Iran, for the goals of the revolution and for Islam." He was introduced by former president Mohammad Khatami, who urged voters not to squander the opportunity to change the government.
Khatami's two terms in office from 1997 to 2005 were defined by political clashes between his administration, which advocated more personal freedoms for Iranians, and other branches of the Islamic republic's government, particularly the judiciary, the military and some religious leaders. Ahmadinejad is backed by a small but influential group of hard-line clerics and military commanders who favor a larger role for Islam in society and advocate a vigorous military to guard the country against attack.
"If we lose, those who want change in Iran will be sidelined and opposed by the government for years to come," said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a cleric and former vice president who supports Karroubi. "But if Ahmadinejad loses, his group, which is supported by fanatics and military people, will be defeated for the first time."