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The question on the minds of Iranians is whether Rafsanjani can deliver as President. His supporters insist that his experience and revolutionary credentials give him the clout to push through reforms--like greater press freedom, fewer dress-code and social restrictions, and better relations with the West--that are opposed by hard-line conservatives, who control the judiciary and security forces and are backed by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. In recent years, the mullahs have responded to the rising clamor for change by blocking reform initiatives of the elected leadership. Khatami was so intimidated by Khamenei that in 2000 he wouldn't shake President Bill Clinton's hand at the U.N. without calling the Supreme Leader back home for permission, which Khamenei refused.
Sources close to Khatami say Rafsanjani and Khamenei, whose rivalry dates to the revolutionary days, have a "poor relationship" and that Khamenei sent a message through Khatami instructing Rafsanjani not to run for the presidency. Rafsanjani's response: "I am the pillar of the revolution. I don't take permission." When Khamenei overturned the supervisory Guardian Council's decision to disqualify reformist presidential candidate Mustafa Moin, some Iranian analysts saw it as an attempt to whittle down Rafsanjani's vote totals and make him a weakened victor.
Rafsanjani says he plans to reach out to disaffected young Iranians--"If they have views and opinions, they shouldn't have any problems expressing them," he says--but he's unlikely to risk his position by pushing for radical reform. "I certainly believe in democracy, but I believe we have to take this course step by step," he says. A senior White House official says that given Rafsanjani's conservative impulses, the U.S. will continue to "talk directly to the Iranian people" in hopes of strengthening popular opposition to the regime. Yet Rafsanjani's gradualist approach is finding a receptive audience among some young Iranians who look at Iraq and conclude that regime change isn't as easy as it sounds.
"Democracy won't come overnight," says Mohammed Moaddab, 27, a graduate student in international affairs who voted twice for Khatami but is supporting Rafsanjani. "We need realism." That may not satisfy idealists in Tehran or Washington. But with Rafsanjani as President, that may be the most they can expect. --With reporting by Matthew Cooper and Elaine Shannon/ Washington, Bruce Crumley/Paris and J.F.O. McAllister/London