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Iranian voter views suggest wide open race

Monday - 6/3/2013, 9:32pm  ET

In this Tuesday, May 28, 2013 photo, Iranian pedestrians make their way, under a mural showing Asghar Dehnadi, who was killed during 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in downtown Tehran, Iran. On the roughneck streets in south Tehran, paramilitary volunteers look to the most hard-line presidential candidate as the best defender of the Islamic system. On the other end of Tehran's social ladder, a university professor plans to snub next week's election. In between is a mix of splintered views, apathy and indecision based on dozens of AP interviews suggesting a still wide open race. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- On the hardscrabble streets in south Tehran, a group of paramilitary volunteers looks to hard-line presidential candidate Saeed Jalili -- Iran's top nuclear negotiator -- as the best defender of the Islamic system. On the other end of Tehran's social ladder, a university professor in a marble-trimmed apartment building plans to boycott next week's election because he rejects all the candidates allowed on the ballot.

A confusing mix of shifting political views, apathy and indecision is brewing across Iran's capital. Taken together, it suggests the June 14 race to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be closer and more complex than reflected by the size of rallies or the depth of ties to the all-powerful theocracy -- both hallmarks of Jalili's bid that have earned him an aura of front-runner.

Instead, rivals such as Tehran Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf and Jalili's predecessor as nuclear envoy, Hasan Rowhani, are increasingly mentioned by voters wanting fewer West-bashing diatribes and more attention to Iran's sinking economy and its nuclear impasse with the West, according to dozens of interviews across Tehran by The Associated Press.

Many also expressed dismay over the disqualification of centrist ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which dashed the hopes of reformist groups. Election overseers barred him from running, along with Ahmadinejad's protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth story in an occasional series examining the June 14 Iranian election and the wider global and internal Iranian consequences at the end of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era.

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The Islamic establishment and its guardians, led by the Revolutionary Guard, hold firm control of the Islamic Republic after crushing opposition forces in the chaotic wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election four years ago. All key decisions remain in their hands, including the direction of Iran's nuclear program and the level of support for regional allies such as Syria's Bashar Assad.

The vote, however, is still important as a measure of Iranian priorities in a country under increasing strain from an economy unraveling under alleged mismanagement and international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.

In broad strokes, the choice is whether to endorse the high-voltage rhetoric of defiance favored by Jalili or the quieter diligence needed to address the ailing economy.

Across Tehran -- from the most neglected districts to Western-style high rises with doorman service -- conversations about the election often veered to the economy, rising prices and international isolation during interviews by the AP.

While it's impossible to extrapolate solid trends from such a snapshot of voters, the attention on the economic worries could boost candidates seen as sound fiscal stewards, such as Qalibaf. The frustrations over Iran's standoffs with the West, in turn, could favor candidates seen as capable of nudging Iran's ruling clerics on a more moderate course such as Rowhani or former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref.

Meanwhile, a diverse range of Iranians ranging from liberal activists to 63-year-old psychology professor Yahya Seyyedi plan to boycott the vote. Their reasons fuse two powerful gripes: Relentless crackdowns on even modest political dissent since the unrest in 2009, and disgust over the rejection of moderate Rafsanjani.

"I would have voted for Rafsanjani," Seyyedi told the AP in the leafy north Tehran district of Farmaniaeh. "The rest have no plan to bypass the current international and economic crises."

Without credible pre-election polling in Iran, there is no way to accurately assess who is on top. The picture is further clouded by the rejection of the 78-year-old Rafsanjani, who is a rare political specimen in Iran: powerful and venerable enough to stand up to the ruling clerics and influence decisions. The remaining eight candidates all have varying degrees of ties to the theocracy and are not expected to press too hard against its authority. They witnessed how Ahmadinejad tried to do that and was left politically battered when the ruling clerics turned against him.

Jalili, a former professor and diplomat, surged into the foreground with fist-waving rallies that echoed Ahmadinejad's rise in 2005 from Tehran mayor to the presidency. But he seemed out of step Friday during an all-candidate televised debate that focused strongly on ways to deal with Iran's mounting economic troubles, including nearly 30 percent inflation and a national currency that has plunged in value in the past two years.

"I do not care about TV debates," said Khalil Alikhani, a metal shop worker and member of the Revolutionary Guard's paramilitary Basij corps in the south Tehran district of Javanmard Qassab. "I have heard from my comrades in Basij that (Jalili) is the best."

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