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Iran presidential race appears to get tighter

By Jon Leyne
BBC's Tehran correspondent

Pro-Mousavi rally in Tehran on 31/5/09
Mir Houssein Mousavi (in the black and white picture) has won unexpected support from Iran's youth

Less than two weeks before the Iranian Presidential election, the contest is coming to life in unexpected and intriguing ways.

For many months it appeared that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was coasting to an easy victory.

But there is a growing feeling that he is going to have to fight very hard to secure re-election.

At the campaign events of the leading candidates, Iran is dividing into two nations.

At Mr Ahmadinejad's rallies, the women are clad in the long black chador of the devout Muslim. The crowds respond to his nationalist rhetoric, his promise of a better life for Iran's poor and neglected.

At the rallies of his leading opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran's new generation are increasingly making their voice heard.

Crowds of educated young women warm to the message being given by Mr Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard. She is the first woman to follow her husband on the campaign trail in the history of the Islamic Republic.

Young people support the husband and wife team in the hope of a future in which Iran is no longer isolated, and they can fulfil their dreams.

'Grey man'

It is all a big surprise.

Mr Mousavi is a stalwart of the Islamic system. He was prime minister during the grim years of the Iran-Iraq war.

Aged 67, he well merits the cruel soubriquet of "grey man". Even his strongest supporters would agree that speech-making is not his forte. He is not known for his charisma.

Most observers believe turn-out is the key. The higher it is, the more chance that Mr Ahmadinejad will become the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic to fail to secure re-election

Yet his campaign has become the rallying point for Iran's new, well-educated, Western-television watching, internet-surfing generation.

For Mr Ahmadinejad, for so long, it all seemed so simple.

He secured the almost open endorsement of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. The Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia were on his side.

He believed he could rely on the support of many government employees, and of the millions of Iranians who have benefited from the money he has spent in villages and small towns around the country.

Until almost the last few days, the opposition appeared weak and divided.

The millions who swept President Mohammad Khatami to power 12 years ago, hoping for reform of the Islamic system, threatened to stay at home, disillusioned that change was possible through the ballot box.

Mosque blast

With no reliable opinion polls, it is particularly hard to make predictions here.

Ahmadinejad supporters hold up his election leaflets in Tehran on 31/5/09
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is banking on support from Iran's grassroots

But it seems clear that Mr Mousavi's supporters are growing in confidence, and Mr Ahmadinejad's aides are getting nervous.

As the election approaches, Iranians wonder whether there are any surprises in store.

Already there have been warnings, from the supreme leader downwards, that foreign powers are trying to sabotage the election.

A bomb attack at a mosque in the south-eastern city of Zahedan on Thursday was dealt with, with brutal efficiency.

Three men accused of supplying the explosives were publicly executed less than two days after the blast.

That the government may feel a sense of crisis does Mr Ahmadinejad no harm.

Mr Ahmadinejad's hope of victory in the first round of the election on 12 June, could be further complicated by the presence of the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezai, on the ballot paper.

Few expect him to be a serious challenger, but he could deny Mr Ahmadinejad a clear majority.

Most people expect the reformist Mehdi Karroubi to be the other candidate who will be eliminated.

That would leave a straight run-off between Mr Ahmadinejad and Mr Moussavi on 19 June.

Most observers believe turn-out is the key. The higher it is, the more chance that Mr Ahmadinejad will become the first president in the history of the Islamic Republic to fail to secure re-election.

Never underestimate Mr Ahmadinejad's ability to gain and hold onto power. But now he faces his biggest test.

The world is watching with interest.



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