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Front-Runner in Iran Finds Students to Be a Tough Audience

ImageAt one point, Mr. Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, said he was one of the nation’s first reformers, and the room burst into laughter.

New York Times

TEHRAN – Aides to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani initially said he would not be making any appearances in the final days before the presidential runoff on Friday against the conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.But as Mr. Rafsanjani’s campaign seemed to stall, he decided to visit Tehran University on Tuesday afternoon to help drum up votes. He might just as well have stayed home, many students said.

As Mr. Rafsanjani, the front-runner in the race to be this nation’s next president, sat almost regally before a packed auditorium, the students alternately booed, laughed at him and, at times, even mocked him.

"Answer the questions!" shouted students seated in the crowd.

"This is not the question; you’re not answering the questions," other students yelled. At one point, Mr. Rafsanjani, a former two-term president, said he was one of the nation’s first reformers, and the room burst into laughter.

"His speech today definitely cost him votes from students, which he might have got," Mohammed Bogari, 25, said as he left the packed auditorium, echoing the comments of student after student.

The race for the presidency of Iran has taken on a near theatrical character despite the real issues at stake. If Mr. Rafsanjani loses, hard-line anti-Western forces, which already dominate the nation’s leadership, will have a monopoly on power.

Without being specific, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is run by the reformers, issued a blunt, angry statement on Tuesday morning saying, in what appeared to be a reference to the military and the Basiji, the hard-line militias, that "institutions whose job it is to protect people organized and orchestrated" the election and that they were likely to try again on Friday.

"Some people, in order to stay in power, are ready to do anything to deviate the election," the spokesman said, without elaborating.

As the candidates headed toward the end of the runoff campaign, it became increasingly clear that if the vote is honest, and if Mr. Rafsanjani wins, it will be in large part because many people are terrified at the prospect of an Ahmadinejad presidency. But if Mr. Ahmadinejad wins, it will show that many people are fed up with the establishment and that Mr. Rafsanjani is seen as the ultimate insider.

Nimah Ahmedi, 20, gave a typical response for a Rafsanjani supporter, "I will vote for him, but I don’t like him."

Mohammad Zare, 20, was typical of those who support the mayor, saying: "We want a person who is honest. Honesty is the most important thing."

The race to replace Mohammed Khatami as president has disclosed the weaknesses of the reform movement in Iran. While the desire for change, greater connection with the outside world and more social freedoms still appear to be paramount for many people, many voters said they no longer viewed the reform parties as vehicles to achieve that change. And many people said they distrusted Mr. Rafsanjani, a former conservative who has tried to reinvent himself as a reformer.

Mr. Khatami’s failure to push through the changes that people hoped for, and the general disarray within the reform movement, has opened the door for Mr. Ahmadinejad, a former member of the Basiji. If he is successful, conservatives will control all of Iran’s power centers.

A victory by Mr. Ahmadinejad could have a major influence on domestic and foreign policy. The hard-liners are socially conservative, but far to the left on economic policy, supporting, for example, government subsidies to keep prices down for certain products. Conservatives have been more aggressive in pushing to develop nuclear weapons, although those particular decisions would probably not be the province of the president but would remain in the hands of the nation’s top security officials, an analyst said.

"If Mr. Ahmadinejad comes to power, it will be a complete concentration of power like you have never had before in Iran," said Amir Ali Nourbakhsh, a political and economic analyst in Tehran. He added, "The question that will be answered for us will be, ‘Will Iranians vote for radical Islamic socialism, yes or no?’ "

But many of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s supporters said they were not thinking that way, seeing him instead as a fresh face and a man of the people, while Mr. Rafsanjani is seen as a throwback, a part of a system they distrust.

"In my opinion, if Mr. Rafsanjani wins, they will have to replace his turban with a crown," said Aida Shafiee, 20, a university student who was in the street on Tuesday protesting the failure of the Education Ministry to begin her program on time.

In fact, the street was crowded with protesters, young men and women, voicing their discontent. It looked like a natural constituency for the reform movement, but most everyone in the crowd said they supported Mr. Ahmadinejad.

"He has come from the people, and he is honest," said Mehdi Gholamnia, 20, a student from the city of Bijar who said he voted four years ago for Mr. Khatami but this year will vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad. Iranians can vote when they are 15.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s partisans were clearly taking the contest seriously and had stepped up their attacks on Mr. Ahmadinejad, with messages flashing on cellphones all over Tehran warning that he would usher in a Taliban-style government and put up dividers to separate men and women riding in elevators.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.