Anti-West Forces Unite in Iran Elections

The ultraconservative political newcomer seeking Iran's presidency is helped along by powerful patrons — including the military guardians of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the son of the nation's supreme leader.

Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inner circle suggests some of Iran's most radical and anti-Western factions have concentrated their influence ahead of this week's head-to-head vote against self-styled moderate Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Already, accusations of vote-rigging during last week's first-round election have arisen against some of Ahmadinejad's allies, particularly the elite Revolutionary Guards and hard-line civilian vigilantes that work alongside them.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search), however, closed the door on any further complaints and cleared the way for Friday's run-off.

The far-reaching influence of Ahmadinejad's backers could be a crucial boost against Rafsanjani, who held the presidency from 1989-97 and is widely considered more receptive to greater contacts with the West and possible dialogue with the United States.

A victory by Ahmadinejad — a former Revolutionary Guard (search) commander who has held only appointed posts — would consolidate hard-line control over the highest elected branches: the presidency and parliament. It would also give the non-elected ruling theocracy a freer hand to roll back social freedoms gained under outgoing President Mohammad Khatami (search) since 1997.

Ahmadinejad's top allies are Khamenei's son, Mojtaba, and Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, leader of the powerful Guardian Council, according to a senior official within the theocracy. The official spoke on condition he not be named because of rules preventing members of the theocracy from commenting directly on election issues.

Iranian press reports also have placed Mojtaba Khamenei and Jannati at the heart of Ahmadinejad's surprise No. 2 finish in last Friday's first round. Neither responded to interview requests by The Associated Press. Campaign officials for Ahmadinejad (pronounced "Aah-MA-dee-ni-JAHD") refused to provide names of prominent supporters.

Khamenei's son normally stays far from the public eye, but he's been seen in recent days visiting Ahmadinejad's campaign headquarters in Tehran. He would offer Ahmadinejad a direct link to the supreme leader, whose hand-picked bloc of Islamic clerics holds near-absolute authority over every aspect of Iranian life.

Jannati, too, is close to the pinnacle of power.

As head of the 12-member Guardian Council, he holds the political reins of Iran. The council must clear all candidates for the presidency and parliament. For the presidential race, just eight men — and only one clear liberal — were permitted to run from more than 1,000 hopefuls. One hard-liner dropped out before the vote.

Jannati's influence is extended by his frequent appearances leading Friday prayers at Tehran University, which are broadcast nationwide. He has described the United States as "bloodthirsty" and said its Islamic allies committed acts of "treason against all Muslims."

And he has objected to any serious concessions over Iran's nuclear program. Washington claims Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear arms. Iran says its planned nuclear reactor is only for energy.

Another firebrand cleric, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, is considered a possible favorite for the key Culture Ministry post if Ahmadinejad is elected. The ministry control extends to the arts, publications and the cinema — which have been allowed significantly broader horizons under Khatami.

But the limits of the presidency also have been evident.

Khatami could do nothing as the ruling clerics closed dozens of pro-reform newspapers and journals since the late 1990s. On Monday, a judicial order shut down the daily Eqbal newspaper, which had supported reformists.

Yazdi — a regular pre-sermon speaker at Tehran University prayers — doesn't shy from calling on attacks to enforce an austere version of Islam.

In 2003, he said Islamic rules must be respected even if "violence is needed to enforce it." He backed the 1989 decree by the founder of the Islamic Revolution, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to kill British author Salman Rushdie for perceived insults to Islam. In 1998, the Iranian government declared it would not support the fatwa, or religious edict, but it still is considered in effect among some radical groups.

Yazdi also called international conventions on women's rights "an insult" to Islamic values and has accused the foreign media of being on the payroll of the CIA and other agencies.

Ayatollah Abolqasem Khazali — another cleric active in Ahmadinejad's campaign — once urged his followers to kill pro-reform writers and activists and told Muslims: "If the enemy does not attack you, you should attack them."

Ahmadinejad was picked in 2003 as Tehran's mayor by the conservative-led municipal council. Its head, Mahdi Chamran, has emerged as a close political adviser and brings a strong nationalist element to the campaign. His late brother, Mostafa, was a hero of the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

On Tuesday, Chamran tried to dismiss fears that Ahmadinejad would bring back the rigid Islamic codes that gripped Iran in the 1980s.

"Opponents ... issue statements that Taliban are on the way or that he will segregate men and women in elevators, universities and other places," Chamran said. "It's not true."