- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Iran restored access to Facebook on Tuesday, two days after the government’s efforts to block the social networking site became an issue in the June 12 presidential election. Candidates opposing incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had earlier condemned the government, charging that blocking the site was meant to interfere with their campaigns by confining news to government-controlled outlets.

“The government wants to prevent all free discussions on the elections,” said Mohammad Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and adviser to Mehdi Karrubi - one of two reformist candidates running against Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The Islamic government already controls five national TV channels, state radio and a dozen local TV channels. State broadcasting has concentrated on the Ahmadinejad campaign while largely ignoring his rivals.

Iran’s constitution bans private ownership of TV and radio stations, and in absence of independent newspapers, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s opponents have turned to Facebook to spread their campaign messages.

When asked about the ban at a news conference Monday, Mr. Ahmadinejad said he was “unaware and would investigate” the matter, Agence France-Presse reported.

The authorities have not given any reason for initially banning access to the site Sunday and then restoring it Tuesday. They closely monitor access to the Internet, especially political and pornographic sites.

Iran is among the most wired nations in the Middle East, with more than 23 million users in a population of about 70 million, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

However, most of the users are concentrated in major cities, not in the rural and provincial areas that appear to be Mr. Ahmadinejad’s base.

The president’s opponents are focusing on his poor economic performance - inflation and unemployment in double digits - to argue that he does not deserve a second five-year term.

Mohammad Khatami, a popular former president and ally of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the top reformist candidate, has predicted that Mr. Mousavi will win by a large margin in a shocking upset similar to Mr. Khatami’s own landslide victory in 1997.

Large turnout at rallies for Mr. Mousavi in recent days in his native province of Azerbaijan would appear to support this prediction, but much depends on turnout. A low turnout in the cities, especially among young people, would benefit Mr. Ahmadinejad, experts say.

A recent poll among Islamic Association of Tehran University students showed that Mr. Mousavi is ahead with 72.1 percent compared with 16.2 percent for Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“But the whole country does not think as students do,” said a political analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named to avoid retribution from the government. “In spite of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s shortcomings, there is good will for him in rural areas.”

The incumbent also appears to have the backing of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He recently asked Iranians to “elect those who live a simple and modest life, who are acquainted with the problems and sufferings of other people and who have avoided extravagance,” which many interpreted as referring to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

However, Mr. Mousavi, a former prime minister who has been absent from politics for two decades, is also known for a modest lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmadinejad won the endorsement Tuesday of the largest bloc in Iran’s parliament. Two hundred members of Iran’s Principlist Front, a coalition of religious conservatives, signed a letter pledging to vote for Mr. Ahmadinejad on June 12.

The president has defended his handling of the economy, insisting on a 30-minute television show last week that “Iran’s economy is stable, despite the global economic crisis.”

However, a third candidate for president, conservative pragmatist and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, has criticized Mr. Ahmadinejad for handing out money and free potatoes on campaign stops across the country.

Mr. Rezaei, campaigning in northern Iran, said, if elected, he would form a coalition government which includes “efficient people who abide by the law.”

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