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Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 18:45 UK
Obama and the Ayatollah

Obama/ Khomenei
Obama's words need to lead to action, Iranians say

The Islamic Republic of Iran is about to decide what its future holds.

The enigmatic country of 72 million people holds presidential elections on 12 June. It comes at a time when American President Barack Obama used his keynote Cairo speech to reach out to the Islamic world in a bid to rekindle the quest for elusive Middle East peace.

In Obama and the Ayatollah, Jane Corbin returns to the country once included in George W Bush's "axis of evil" that has been accused of trying to create a nuclear bomb and of supporting extremist Islamic groups in the region.

Jane asks whether Iran will use the presidential election as a vote to be brought back into the fold of the international community.

While at times perceived as the West's enemy number one, Iran could also become a powerful broker in the region.

Ayatollah's gaze

Beneath the gaze of its Ayatollah and Grand Supreme Leader, Jane, who last reported from the country for Panorama in 1993, attempts to capture the mood of the voters and weigh the chances of Mr Obama's direct plea to Iranians for greater understanding - sent via the internet in March - being heeded.

Panorama: Obama and the Ayatollah

Outside observers agree that Iran has been on a four-year-long roller coaster ride under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has both fired up national pride and brought international condemnation and despair from the West.

Unapologetic as he heads into a tough re-election battle, Mr Ahmadinejad is fighting hard for his political future and leaning heavily on his support base among conservative, religious voters.

He has the backing, albeit discreet, of Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the successor to revolution leader Ayatollah Khomeini.

His opponents are reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi, a former prime minister and his closest rival, Mehdi Karroubi, a former speaker and conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai, former head of the Revolutionary Guard.

The Panorama team looks at the Ayatollah's own views and priorities and asks whether he will listen to the voice of his people in order to safeguard the future of the Islamic Revolution.

Thirty years on

The programme follows the campaign of Mr Ahmadinejad's main rival, Mr Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate.

Ahmadinejad (top l), Mousavi (top r), Karroubi (bottom l) and Rezai (bottom r)
The candidates (clockwise from top left): Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, Karroubi, Rezai

Drawing younger, bigger crowds than the incumbent, Mr Mousavi has promised to mend relations with the West if he is elected president.

Jane samples the opinions of a range of Iranians on what they are looking for next, 30 years on from the Islamic Revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi.

Respected economist Saeed Laylaz tells Jane where Mr Ahmadinejad faltered.

"He wanted to feed poor people so he concentrated on distribution of wealth not production of wealth which is a wrong policy," he said, adding that social unrest should not be discounted. "We have three million unemployed and that's an army."

But in the countryside, Panorama finds that the ultra-conservative Ahmadinejad has deep roots of support.

"Ahmadinejad is very down to earth and that's important to me. He supports poor people - people in rural areas and solves their problems," says a devout man in a small town hardware shop.

Faltering economy

Panorama also looks at how information about the candidates is being spread in 2009, with particular attention on the role of the internet in a country where television is controlled by the state, although at least one third of Iranians have satellite dishes.

In a nation where 70% of the population is under the age of 35, the internet is proving to be a powerful election tool, as is the culture of the young, including a thriving underground music scene trying to bring about change outside political control.

While elements of Iranian society appear to be moving forward apace, Jane finds that the oil-rich nation's economy is faltering.

Mr Ahmadinejad's promises four years ago to redistribute the wealth have not been delivered on and food prices have increased a staggering 41%.

Nuclear threat

Jane takes President Obama's recent video appeal, which was not shown on state controlled television, directly to some of the people she meets in order to canvas opinion.

Iranian election official
An election official at presidential registrations

She hears welcoming comments but a hesitation to trust words without actions.

"We thank him for his good wishes. But as everyone knows in past decades American presidents haven't shown they are honest with us and can see the reality of our situation," one man tells Jane.

But one over-arching issue remains - Iran's ambitious nuclear programme.

The right to develop nuclear power - and potentially the technology for a nuclear bomb - unites Iranians of all political stripes, who believe strongly that the country needs to be able to decide its own destiny and defend itself with a force equal to that held by regional nuclear neighbours Israel and Pakistan.

Panorama: Obama and the Ayatollah, Monday, 8 June, BBC One at 8.30pm.

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