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12 Jun, 2009 21:35

Iran votes: new era or hard line?

Iranian state media reports that the country's incumbent leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has won the presidential election. His main rival, the moderate former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, is also claiming victory.

Iran’s Election Commission had to extend the voting three times due to the high turnout which it described as "unprecedented".

Moderate reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi has strong backing from voters keen on reform, who abstained from the polls in 2005.

Overall, there are four candidates. If one candidate fails to win a 50% majority then there will be a run-off between the two front-runners.

Reformists in the county accuse the president of mishandling the economy and manipulating statistics to hide the extent of the nation's fiscal problems despite its vast oil and gas reserves. However, what the West will be most interested in is the possible shift in tone of Iran’s rhetoric towards the US and Israel.

One sign of this could be the fact that current Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is banking on America’s recent buzzword slogan to put him in the top stop for another four years. Ahmadinejad has taken a leaf out of the Obama campaign.

“Yes We Can” is possibly one of the most potent political slogans of recent years, but will this mantra of the recent US presidential elections work in the Iranian President’s favor? Some local residents are convinced:

“I support him for his audacity, bravery and eloquence, and I am sure that he is steady and strong enough to express himself easily,” one Iranian told RT.

His followers seem ready to agree with anything Ahmadinejad says, even when he's accusing his rivals of using Hitleresque slander campaigns:

“We do not insult and slander, we have logic. God willing, our logic will beat all the insults, slanders and immoralities,” the Iranian President had previously said during his campaign.

It is a rather surprising choice of words for the man who has made headlines for denying the Holocaust and for calling to wipe Israel off the map. What is even more surprising is perhaps that many in Israel actually support him.

“We are supporting the same idea as Iran that Zionism should be wiped off the map,” Rabbi Meir Hirsh, the leader of Neturei Karta (“Jews United Against Zionism”) in Jerusalem said.

“Zionism has no right to exist. The Zionists call themselves Jews but if you look at Jewish law, Zionism does not comply with the Torah. Zionists do not belong to the Jewish people at all,” he added.

This rabbi and his movement have even written a letter to the Iranian leader. In it, they express support for his call to eradicate the Israeli state because they believe the Torah calls for the Jews to live in exile.

Broadly speaking, Iranian voters are split into two camps: those who support the current conservative leader and those who want reform, but even those voters who do want reform believe the current leader is the man to deliver change:

“Women in Iran do have influence but we cannot take part in the presidential race. It’s a pressing issue but I don’t think the country's leader is against it,” Fatima Aliya the head of the Women’s Committee explained.

The race between Ahmadinejad and his main rival, Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, is too close to call. This election has wider implications than for just the people of the Islamic republic – its outcome will be watched with great interest by all the world's major powers.

While some aspects of Iran's foreign policy may change depending on who wins the election, Flynt Leverett from the New America Foundation says Tehran's attitude to the U.S. has long been set.

“President Ahmadinejad has made it clear that he is open to dialogue and better relations with the US, but it is going to be a dialogue within certain, very strictly defined guidelines that reflect Iranian national interests. This is not the position only of president Ahmadinejad, it is more importantly the position of the supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. So whether president Ahmadinejad is re-elected or is replaced by somebody else, presumably Mir-Hossein Mousavi, I do not think that the basic approach of Iran to the US is going to change very much. Perhaps a bit more in style but not really in substance,” Leverett said.