A member of the Iranian diaspora summed it up, wryly, in just one phrase: “Welcome to the axis of lesser evil.”

The sophisticated Persian civilization invented chess. The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 (France, Germany and Great Britain) is nothing but a game of chess. Iranians are now taking pleasure in reducing President George W. Bush’s moves to dust. Bush said that last week’s presidential elections were a sham. A flood of electors (62%) went to the polls to demonstrate otherwise. Ali Yunesi, Iran’s Intelligence Minister, quipped, sarcastically, “Thank you. He motivated people to vote in retaliation.” Now the counter move is the axis of lesser evil: the reformist movement backing pragmatist Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani en masse in the second and deciding round of voting on Friday in a runoff against against ultra-hawk Mahmud Ahmadinejad. A committee called Students’ Anti-Fascism Headquarters is even traveling to rural Iran to campaign for Rafsanjani.

Between a dogmatic ex-commando still very active in the trenches of puritanism and a pragmatic, let’s-talk-to-the-West insider, Rafsanjani the millionaire mullah could not but be regarded by the reformists as the lesser evil – Their candidates were routed in the first round, with Mostafa Moin – the tentative successor to outgoing president Mohammed Khatami – only getting 14% of the votes. Reformists feel that they have lost a battle but not the war. Moin’s defeat was Khatami’s last, undeserved humiliation. Reformists now seem to realize that Ahmadinejad got to the second round because he was talking about unemployment and inflation – practical problems for most Iranians – not more freedom and democracy, which had been Khatami’s favored rhetoric.

Ahmadinejad, Tehran’s mayor, stormed the finishing line with 19% of the votes (Rafsanjani got 21%) thanks to the discreet but very efficient mobilization of the highly motivated masses of the pious poor. The mobilization was directed by very organized militias like the Basijis and the Hezbollahis: it’s important to remember that both the Basijis and Ansar-e Hizbollah attacked reformist students in 1999 and 2003. Ahmadinejad’s simple, straightforward rhetoric – a throwback to the early period of the Islamic revolution of 1979 – was a smash, especially in Tehran’s poor side of town. Tehran, a metropolis of 14 million, is deeply segregated. The made-up girls with silky designer scarves bought in Dubai driving Pathfinders in north Tehran are definitely a minority. One of the most popular of Ahmadinejad’s campaign slogans was “we didn’t conduct a revolution so that we could become a democracy.” Then in his post-first round press conference he added that, “in our democratic system, liberty is already beyond what could be imagined.”

European Union diplomats concur with the analysis by the reformist Shargh daily newspaper, which compared this Iranian election with the French presidential election in 2002. Then, in the first round, socialist Lionel Jospin was overtaken at the last minute by ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen – an outcome no one had predicted. In the second round, Jacques Chirac won by a landslide – thanks to a massive strategic vote by the left. Shargh’s chief editor, Mohammad Kuchani, writes, “It is now explicitly clear that Rafsanjani is the only option to keep democracy in Iran.” For him, talking about boycott “is a betrayal to freedom” and “political suicide.”

The ultimate Persian neo-con

As the head of the extremely powerful Expediency Council – which arbitrates between the Guardians Council and the majlis (parliament) – 70-year-old Rafsanjani already was Iran’s de facto number 2, responding only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and much more influential than the outgoing Khatami. Rafsanjani’s team is in charge of the ultra-sensitive nuclear dossier. It was basically Rafsanjani’s decision to freeze Iranian nuclear enrichment, be available to all sorts of UN inspections, and negotiate with the EU-3. He wants detente with the US – although he clearly stipulates Washington has to make the first move.

Ahmadinejad, 49, a former commando with the regime’s ideological army, the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards), active in covert cross-border operations during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, is a completely different story. He’s backed by practically all the extreme right-wing spectrum, people who are even further to the right of the Supreme Leader. He has no problems with his persona: in one of his campaign rallies he said that “the people are waiting for the fundamentalists to serve them.” He rules out any dialogue with the “Great Satan.” And he will be much tougher in nuclear negotiations.

Reformists say that he “Islamized” Tehran to an enormous extent, cracking down heavily on social and cultural life, transforming cultural centers – which used to offer language courses, movies, libraries, theater groups and music concerts – into ersatz prayer rooms. He also shut down fast food joints where the city’s vast young armies went to grab a chicken burger and at least try to strike up a conversation with girls. Anyone driving an Iranian-made Paykan with the stereo blasting was fined. Soccer superstar David Beckham – advertising motor oil on a billboard – was also banned. The mayor’s new, strictly enforced dress code imposed long-sleeved shirts for male municipal employees and a compulsory beard. Ahmadinejad’s beard is neatly trimmed. He looks scruffy – cheap shirt, cheap jacket, no tie – miles away from the sartorial splendor of Khatami.

Remember Ohio

The losers in the first round are not going quietly. Supporters of Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf insist that on election day last Friday, Basij militia commanders and clerical leaders saying prayers and branding fatwas ordered all conservative families at the last minute to switch their support from Qalibaf to Ahmadinejad. The allegation needs to be considered: as late as Thursday, one day before the vote, Ahmadinejad was trailing at only 5 %, way behind Qalibaf and reformist Moin.

Moin supporters alleged that members of the Guardians Council – supposed to be observers – were actually counting votes, and organizing a US$15.5 million operation involving 300,000 members to make sure Ahmadinejad got to the second round. Centrist-reformist cleric Mehdi Karoubi told of “bizarre interference” and “money changing hands.” The 12-member Guardians Council – headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati – denied every accusation and said the election process was “healthy” and ordered a meek recount of only 100 ballot boxes. Two reformist newspapers, Aftab and Eghbal, were banned for attempting to publish a letter by Karoubi denouncing an elaborate plot to rig the polls. But “we do not know if this measure only applies to today’s issue or if it is a more long-term ban,” said reformist official Issa Saharkiz.

Reformists are intrigued, to say the least, that after the first post-election projections, Ahmadinejad was in third place, behind Moin; then Ahmadinejad declared victory hours before the Interior Ministry had said anything officially. Comparisons are being made with the 2004 US presidential election in Ohio. Significant numbers of Americans are convinced the election in Ohio was stolen. Unfazed, Karoubi appealed to the Supreme Leader to “appoint an honest and trusted committee” to investigate the Guardians Council themselves, as well as the Interior Ministry, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basijis. It’s very unlikely the system will investigate itself.

We prefer regime change

As Ahmadinejad is very close to the Supreme Leader, a victory in the second round means all the institutions in the Islamic republic – from the judiciary to parliament – will be controlled by the right-wing. “Not unlike the US,” quips a European diplomat. The conservatives are emboldened. According to Ressalat newspaper, “People want an honest fundamentalist who is proud of his fundamentalism, not someone who resorts to different appearance to win votes.” Sounds like Republicans blaming Democrat hopeful John Kerry as a flip-flopper. Reformists and large swathes of the Iranian diaspora are deeply disturbed – because they know that for the regime, Rafsanjani is considered a dangerous rival to the Supreme Leader, while Ahmadinejad is regarded as a “son of the revolution.” Anything can happen.

Rafsanjani has publicly appealed for the votes of everyone to the left of Ahmadinejad – which in fact means everyone except the hardliners – “so that we can prevent extremism.” Student reformists are busy shoring up the axis of lesser evil. If pragmatist Rafsanjani wins, the Bush administration will have to do business with a moderate. No regime change. No invasion. No war. Certainly the last thing Washington neo-cons want.