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Reform-Minded Iranian Students Back Rafsanjani Reluctantly


Supporter of ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Friday's runoff presidential election in Iran pits a moderate former president against the hardline conservative mayor of Tehran. Ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is looking to pick up the votes of students who have been the backbone of the reform movement. He appears to be getting the support he seeks from that quarter, but it is reluctant.

At a hastily arranged meeting at Tehran University Tuesday, former President Rafsanajani was greeted with thunderous cheers and shouts of "Hashemi", as he is commonly known, as he entered the overflowing auditorium.

But in a question-and-answer session, the shouts became less friendly as Mr. Rafsanjani avoided giving direct answers to questions about political prisoners and democratic reform in Iran.

At one point, Mr. Ransanjani was heard to quietly mutter to the moderator, "change the subject."

Mr. Rafsanjani will square off against Tehran mayor Mahmood Ahmadinejad in Friday's vote. Mr. Ahmadinejad, perhaps the most conservative of the seven candidates who were permitted to compete in last week's presidential race, made a surprise second place finish. The reformists' favorite, Mostafa Moin, got only fifth place.

Hassan Mortazavirad is a member of the steering committee of the Islamic Students' Association at Tehran University and one of the organizers of the Rafsanjani forum, says many students are giving grudging support to Mr. Rafsanjani.

"Of course we will all have to vote for Mr. Rafsanjani. No choice, we have no choice. We don't like him a lot. [But] we have no other option," he said.

Indeed, Mr. Rafsanjani seemed to recognize that when he told the students that by the day after the vote they will be back to criticizing him.

Mr. Mortazavirad says the "other option," President Ahmadinejad, is a reformist's nightmare.

"At the first thought, at least, it's very awful because Mr. Ahmadinejad himself put aside, his followers are very much extremists,” he added. “And this is what makes us more unhopeful in a sense about the future."

But some students, like this young man, heard nothing from Mr. Rafsanjani that would persuade him.

"He's just talking about stuff I don't believe. For me, I don't think I'll vote," he said.

Analysts have said Mr. Ahmadinejad's populist platform, which includes providing a monthly stipend to citizens, won votes from people concerned about economic issues such as unemployment.

Mr. Mortazavirad says the reform movement perhaps made a strategic error in concentrating on issues such as political prisoners over peoples' daily economic hardships.

"Many people thought, what about us? Millions of people are in harsh conditions, perhaps. Let's finish this, okay? This is what many people say. Many, many, many, people say this. And it was reflected in the votes," he explained.

Much of Mr. Ahmadinejad's support in the first round came from poorer areas such as South Tehran. Reformists have charged the Basij, a paramilitary arm of the Revolutionary Guard, with violating prohibitions against military involvement in politics by mobilizing votes for the Tehran mayor.