``Iranian politics are a mystery, even to the Iranians,'' sighs a Western diplomat in Tehran, the capital.
But with a presidential vote due May 23, Iran's political climate has become electrified by secret negotiations and backroom deals as seven candidates jockey for position. This election could have an impact on relations between the ``Great Satan'' West and Iran, whose role in Mideast peace is growing.
For the past year, the frontrunner to replace President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani has been parliamentary Speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri. Mr. Nateq-Nouri, a conservative cleric, is backed by Iran's powerful bazaari class of merchants.
But now an outsider has upset the odds. The campaign of Mohammed Khatemi, head of Iran's national library and doyen of the intellectual left, has jolted Nateq-Nouri from complacency.
``We're no longer so sure about Nateq-Nouri,'' says a newspaper editor in Tehran, who asked to remain anonymous. ``His confidence is gone. He's just not talking like a president any more.''
Mr. Khatemi, a former minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was fired by Mr. Rafsanjani in 1993 for his liberal tendencies. Khatemi favors an Islamic socialism that puts ``social justice'' before economic development.
The success of his campaign so far has alarmed Iran's extreme right-wing politicians. ``In an open vote, Nateq-Nouri could no longer be certain of beating Khatemi, so the way is clear for all sorts of deals,'' says the Western diplomat.
Khatemi's campaign would be boosted by an endorsement from Rafsanjani. So far, this has not happened.
Government officials say Rafsanjani is tied up negotiating his own future. A wealthy pistachio farmer from southern Iran, Rafsanjani was elected president in 1989 after the Ayatollah Khomeini's death and won a second term in 1993. Barred by the Constitution from seeking a third consecutive term, Rafsanjani has admitted that he is angling for a new executive post in government.
Under Iran's unique system of government, overall power is shared between an elected, executive president and an unelected supreme leader who retains ultimate executive power, including the ability to dismiss the president. The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was appointed when Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989.
One possible option for Rafsanjani is becoming deputy to Khamenei.
That would give Rafsanjani immense influence over the new president.
``His aim is not simply to keep [hard-liner] Nateq-Nouri out of the presidency. Rafsanjani wants to make sure he stays around himself,'' says the Tehran editor.
Iranians are divided on Rafsanjani's chances of political survival.
Although an adept tactician, his influence has eroded during his second term. Iranian analysts say conservative members of the ruling elite, led by Nateq-Nouri, chipped away at his economic reform program, reducing it to slogans.
Yet few Iranians believe that Rafsanjani will retire to his family's pistachio farms without a fight. ``Rafsanjani and Khamenei go way back together, right back to theological school,'' says the editor. ``They may have different agendas, but they have struck up a working relationship. I can't accept that Rafsanjani will simply turn his back on politics.''
The only other serious contender for the presidency is Mohammed Reyshahri, a former intelligence minister and one of the most hard-line figures in Iranian politics. ``Reyshahri is seen as the Prince of Darkness, even within the government,'' says another Western diplomat. ``His political agenda is unsophisticated, and his panacea for the economy is to get rid of corruption. He would not do well in an open vote.''
Iran's ruling clerics, who have the power to debar any prospective candidate, face a tough choice. The Islamic authorities want to protect their claim to represent an elected government; a low voter turnout would be an embarrassment.
``Nateq-Nouri is perceived as a safe pair of hands who can be trusted not to raise uncomfortable questions about reform,'' says the second diplomat, ``but he is unpopular with the voters.''
Khatemi, conversely, may rouse the voters, but he could introduce thorny questions of political liberalization. He has addressed workers' rights, women's rights, and the problems facing the young. If no contender wins an overall majority in the May poll, a second-round vote will take place in June. The political ground is still shifting; many deals are likely to be made and broken before the Council of Guardians releases its list of candidates this month.
``We have firm guarantees,'' Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel told reporters. ``I've had no reason to doubt up until now that what Iran has said to us officially will not be honoured.''
Kinkel was speaking as crowds gathered in towns and cities across Iran to protest against the German court's verdict that top Iranian leaders ordered the killing of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin's Mykonos restaurant in 1992.
On Sunday, hundreds of thousands gathered outside the German embassy in Tehran, chanting anti-Western slogans.
The European Union has suspended its policy of ``critical dialogue'' with Iran and all its members except Greece have recalled their top diplomats from Tehran for consultations as a first response to the Berlin court's verdict.
In an interview with Germany's ARD television on Monday, former Iranian President Abolhassan Banisadr demanded a complete abandonment of the EU's ``critical dialogue'' policy.
The policy was aimed at keeping communication channels open to encourage more pro-Western elements in Iran while not losing sight of human rights.
``I think this has brought nothing apart from a certain amount of corruption in Iran,'' Banisadr said, suggesting the EU adopt a policy of ``active neutrality'' where only a bare minimum of economic and trade ties would be maintained.
``That means the regime would be supported neither economically nor politically and that the law would be applied when it comes to terrorist acts,'' said the former president, who was due to visit Bonn later in the day to lobby for his stance.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Erdmann said the EU planned to take a ``pause for thought'' until its Foreign Ministers hold talks at the end of the month in Luxembourg where relations with Tehran will be high on the agenda.
``I think we will have to think in all directions,'' Erdmann told reporters, adding he could not say if Banisadr's suggestion in particular would be considered.
``We should take a pause for thought in the days and weeks which lie ahead,'' Erdmann said. ``I can't predict what will happen after this phase of consideration.''
The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee said there was no point in resuming the ``critical dialogue'' with Iran for the foreseeable future.
``The problem is that the same people who were implicated in the Mykonos trial represent the Iranian leadership for the foreseeable future,'' Karl-Heinz Hornhues, a member of Chancellor Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats, told Saar Radio.
Last Thursday's verdict marked the first time a European court had clearly attributed political responsibility for any of the dozens of assassinations of Iranian opposition figures abroad since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
``We're disappointed that the Greek government failed to join the (European Union) consensus to withdraw its ambassador,'' State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said.
All members of the 15-nation EU except for Greece recalled their envoys for consultations after the court ruled Thursday that top Iranian political and religious leaders ordered the 1992 killings of four Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.
But Greece expressed its reservations over the EU's appeal to member states to withdraw their envoys, saying it opposed terrorism and the use of violence but isolating a country was not the best way to bring it into the international community.
``We think that given the facts laid before the German people ... it is crystal clear what happened in the assassination of those people,'' Burns told a news briefing.
``The complicity of the Iranian government is clear for everyone to see. Therefore, we congratulate those European Union countries who've taken resolute action, and we wish it were across the board.''
Washington has taken the court ruling as a vindication of its view that Iran sponsors terrorism and has urged EU countries to follow its lead and impose sanctions on Iran.
Iran, which has repeatedly denied all involvement in the killings, has urged EU states not to jeopardize their interests in Iran over the verdict.
But Burns said it was ``extraordinary chutzpah (audacity) on the part of the leadership of Iran to threaten the European governments.''
``It seems extraordinary to assert that somehow the problem is with the Europeans. The problem is with Iran,'' he said.
The Iranian embassy had informed the DIHT the delegation would not be coming as the visit would not be appropriate at the current time, a DIHT spokesman said. A Berlin court last week accused Tehran of ordering the 1992 murder of four dissidents.
The court ruled that Iranian leaders, including the state president and the religious leader, had ordered the killing of the four Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.
The ruling sparked a diplomatic crisis between the European Union and Iran. All EU members except Greece have recalled their top diplomats from Tehran for consultation and the bloc has suspended its policy of ``critical dialogue'' with Iran.
Iranian leaders have sharply condemned the verdict and hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated outside the German embassy in Tehran.
The 26-strong trade delegation was due to visit Dresden, Hamburg and Bonn on a trip beginning next Monday.