(CNSNews.com) – Iranians hold their last day of campaigning Wednesday ahead of elections that pit Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against three challengers who hope to bring his controversial presidency to an end.
Leading the effort to unseat Ahmadinejad is Mir Hossein Mousavi, a 67-year-old former prime minister described as a “reformist” in the Iranian context, who during an increasingly bitter campaign accused the incumbent of furthering Iran’s isolation, damaging its “dignity” and undermining its economy.
Mousavi, who was premier in the 1980s – the post was later abolished – has been out the public eye for years, although he served as an advisor to the presidency through the 1990s and up until Ahmadinejad succeeded reformist former President Mohammed Khatami in 2005.
Khatami, an early contender in this year’s election, withdrew in March to throw his support behind Mousavi. Mousavi enjoys strong backing from younger Iranians, especially in Tehran where green-clad supporters have taken to the streets in recent days – and late into the nights – with fervor unusual for Iranian election campaigns.
However, another reformist candidate in Friday’s election, Mehdi Karroubi, has resisted calls to step down in favor of Mousavi. Karroubi, a 72-year-old cleric and former parliamentary speaker, is also a vocal critic of Ahmadinejad’s policies at home and abroad.
Rounding out the four-man race is Mohsen Rezai, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards wanted by the Argentine authorities in connection with a 1994 terrorist bombing in Buenos Aires.
Although dealings between Iran and the country its mullahs dubbed the “great satan” have been chilly since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ahmadinejad has taken a particularly confrontational approach, seeming to take delight in deriding the U.S. while forming alliances with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and others hostile to America. His threats against Israel, whose destruction he frequently predicts, and description of the Holocaust as a myth have earned him further notoriety.
A Mousavi victory would likely usher in a less combative style of presidency and ease President Obama’s attempts to engage Tehran. On the domestic front, he has pledged to improve the treatment of women and remove some media restrictions.
But on the key issue of the country’s nuclear program, Mousavi – like Ahmadinejad and other Iranian leaders – insists on Iran’s right to enrich uranium. The U.S. and its allies believe the activities are a cover for developing a nuclear weapons capability.
“Supreme leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a conservative who has indirectly endorsed Ahmadinejad during the campaign, retains ultimate authority in Iran.
If no single candidate wins a simple majority of votes cast on Friday, a second round will be held one week later between the two top-scoring contestants. In the 2005 election, Ahmadinejad and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, another former president, went to a run-off after a first round in which Karroubi came third and claimed the poll had been rigged.
Analysts predict this time that if a second round is necessary, it will be Ahmadinejad and Mousavi who go through.
In such an event, Karroubi would likely urge his supporters to back Mousavi. It is not clear whether Rezai would endorse Ahmadinejad. Notwithstanding his own controversial background, Rezai has criticized the incumbent’s foreign policies and questioned the value of denying the Holocaust.
Not wanting to be seen as trying to interfere in the election, the U.S. State Department has declined to comment on the contest. But spokesman Ian Kelly said Monday the election was being watched “very closely.”
“We look forward to the time when Iran begins to reengage with us on some regional issues on nonproliferation,” he added.