A victory for the moderate former PM would increase the chances of reaching rapprochement on the prickly nuclear issue.
A nation's future is at stake
The outcome of Iran's presidential elections on Friday will affect Tehran's response to US overtures to end three decades of enmity and the related issue of how it handles the tangled nuclear dispute. That makes the vote the most important in the Islamic republic's history - with ramifications for the region and the world beyond. No wonder the elections have galvanised the Iranian public, burying earlier fears of voter apathy. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, has a toxic reputation in Washington. Mir Hossein Mousavi, a moderate former prime minister who has the best chance of ousting him, would be far more palatable to the United States. "It would be much better if we were dealing with an Iranian president who lowered the rhetorical tension level rather than one who seems to constantly look for ways to increase it," said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. But given internal disputes within the Iranian leadership over whether to engage with the superpower it has long derided as the "global arrogance", some analysts are divided over whether Mr Ahmadinejad or Mr Mousavi would be better able to pursue rapprochement with Washington. Paradoxically, some suggest it might be the firebrand incumbent. Others vehemently disagree. Barack Obama, the US president, has suggested direct talks on a range of issues, including the nuclear dispute, offering possible renewed ties - broken in April 1980 - if Iran "unclenches its fist", saying he would like to see progress at the end of the year. He hopes to start talks soon after Iran's election. An increasingly confident Mr Mousavi has lambasted Mr Ahmadinejad for burdening Iran with an "extremist" image that he says now means Iranian passports have the same status as Somalia's. The president's prime challenger has pledged detente with the West - which is winning him many young voters weary of Iran's long isolation - but insists this will not come at the expense of Iran's cherished nuclear programme. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's unelected supreme leader, has made Iran's right to a civilian nuclear programme and a home-grown fuel cycle a red line no Iranian candidate dare cross. But Mr Mousavi has promised to work with world powers to reassure them that Iran's nuclear activities will not be diverted to the development of weapons. "Having nuclear technology for peaceful purposes without being a threat to the world is our strategic objective," he told a recent press conference. Few doubt that Mr Mousavi would be better able to build trust on this issue with Washington than Mr Ahmadinejad, who recently ruled out nuclear negotiations with the US, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain. Like Mr Mousavi, Mr Ahmadinejad's two other presidential challengers, the liberal former parliamentary speaker, Mehdi Karrubi, and the hardline former Revolutionary Guards chief, Mohsen Rezai, have accused the president of recklessly heightening international suspicions about Iran's nuclear activities with his confrontational rhetoric. A second four-year term for Mr Ahmadinejad would be a big blow to the chances of rapprochement with Washington, many experts said. "Ahmadinejad's continued presence would serve as a major - I fear insurmountable - obstacle to US-Iran confidence building," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "In the context of domestic US politics, he pushes the worst possible buttons; his diatribes toward Israel and his Holocaust denial make it far more difficult for any US administration to acquiesce on Iran's enrichment of uranium," Mr Sadjadpour wrote in a web commentary. He added, however, that even if Mr Ahmadinejad is re-elected, "continuing to engage Iran ? is the right thing to do". Despite his fiery anti-US rhetoric, the populist Mr Ahmadinejad has shown interest in dialogue with Washington based on "mutual respect", tacitly acknowledging this would be a big hit with most Iranians. He broke a major establishment taboo by writing a letter to the former US president, George W Bush, in 2006, and a congratulatory letter to Mr Obama when he won the race for the White House in November. In a heated television debate with Mr Ahmadinejad, Mr Karrubi scoffed that the president had not received a reply to either missive, implying the snubs reflected Washington's contempt for the Iranian incumbent. But given Mr Ahamadinejad's militant image and conservative pedigree, he would be better able to neutralise hardline opposition to engagement with Washington, some experts argue. "The current [Iranian] president might not be an insuperable obstacle to engagement and ? a more reform-minded successor might be less able to achieve it," said the International Crisis Group in a report last week. By contrast, a moderate such as Mr Mousavi might find himself "handcuffed by conservative pressure and intimidation", from responding to US overtures. Opposition from a determined conservative lobby could even possibly be led by Mr Ahmadinejad if he is ousted, the think tank said. "While Washington would prefer to see the Iranian electorate retire Ahmadinejad, America won't be helped if his successor carries the indecisiveness of Khatami," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which promotes dialogue to resolve disputes. An Ahmadinejad defeat "would help improve the atmospherics" between Tehran and Washington and "make diplomacy much easier to sell politically at home" for Mr Obama, Mr Parsi said. But for diplomacy to succeed, the next Iranian president "must be bold and fearless in challenging Iranian taboos", Mr Parsi said. "For better or worse, Ahmadinejad has shown an appetite for taking bold steps his predecessors dare not take - whether it be sending letters to Bush and congratulatory messages to Obama, or to ration gasoline." firstname.lastname@example.org