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Three to Tango

He wasn't a "good Muslim." So, the Iranian state-run television channel rejected Massud Imani. The journalist then applied to the United States for media studies. The US embassy in Turkey found him "too Muslim" and rejected his visa application. Imani, 36, enrolled at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and has lived in Delhi for almost ten years. "India accepted me," he says. "We (Iranians) love India like a second mother."

Imani's story is a prelude to India's dilemma of making new friends and keeping old ones. The budding "strategic relations" between India and the US have stifled the "civilizational ties" shared by India and Iran. New Delhi opposes Tehran's nuclear program, and the Iran-Pakistan-India natural gas pipeline remains nestled in uncertainty.

"India does not have a sophisticated policy towards Iran," says Pushpesh Pant, a foreign policy expert at JNU. "The best course will be to stonewall articulating a clear policy and behind the curtains follow the Americans."

In June, Iran will hold its presidential elections. Now, with President Barack Obama's offer of "engagement" presenting a historic opportunity for ending three decades of antagonism, will the new Iranian president unclench a fist? India, too, will profit from a cessation of hostilities.

India and Iran need each other on two fronts. First, to stop the steady rise of Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is radically anti-Shia. The second front is oil. An Iran expert at Columbia University, Richard Bulliet, explains that New Delhi is acutely conscious of Washington's hostility to the pipeline. "India is now hostage to the United States," he says.

The successful completion of the IPI deal could lead to other gas pipelines crisscrossing Iran. The Americans will not allow Iran to benefit from the oil and transit revenue, which will "embolden" it, and indirectly bolster Hamas and Hezbollah.

However, the offer of "engagement" could lead to a period of negotiation and trade offs. Whether diplomacy prevails, depends on the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Washington abandoning its carrot and stick approach. The next Iranian leader will be the crucial go-between.

Two conservative candidates, parliament speaker Ali Larijani and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, are potentially in the offing. But, the showdown is anticipated between incumbent leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a reformist former President Mohammad Khatami.

Iranian society is politically polarized. While the young, educated urban middle class and bourgeoisie are pinning their hopes on Khatami, it is Ahmadinejad that has the backing of the poor, rural voters and low-income groups who have benefited from low gas prices and higher pensions.

However, faced with Iran's rampant unemployment, double-digit inflation and international isolation, even the conservative electorate is divided in its support for Ahmadinejad. But, the incumbent has the blessing of Khamenei, a prerequisite to winning.

Another reformist candidate, Mehdi Karrubi, told US based National Public Radio (NPR) that the "only way Ahmadinejad could be beaten is by a large voter turnout. If there is a normal turnout, those in power will stay there."

Washington would prefer dealing with a reformist but a conservative parliament will block a liberal president on an intrepid agenda. "Khatami was able to quote a lot of French philosophers and speak of human rights during his presidency, but this did not translate into real reform," says Hamid Yazdanpanah, a 22-year-old law student in San Francisco, whose parents are political refugees.

Although, the parliament cannot thwart every item on the president's agenda. Dialogue with the Americans can be initiated on areas of mutual interest such as opening an interest section in Tehran, controlling opium production in Afghanistan and policing Iran's eastern border.

Iranian websites have sported Obama's middle name "Hussein". If friendship blossoms, Tehran can offer, as a goodwill gesture, suspending but not terminating uranium enrichment for the nuclear program. "The West would see this as a huge victory and in Iran it could be a concession to the Iranophobia," says Bulliet.

Ahmadinejad, boxed in by his aggressive rhetoric and inflexible position, is not the best contender for the job. But, some fear that a reformist will compromise Iran's right to have civilian nuclear energy and even a nuclear weapon. "I don't like to see my country's affair fallen in the hands of another US-backed traitor," says Mostafa Hessami, a 22-year-old engineering student from Mashhad city, referring to Khatami.

A rapper from Tehran, Sahand Quazi, adds, "A positive aspect of Ahmadinejad was that he does not suffer from an inferiority complex and is not an apologist for the policies of the Islamic Republic." Quazi, 23, also wants social reform. "It is futile to impose some of the values from the heyday of the revolution on this new generation."

Today, 70 percent of Iranians are under 30. They endure student arrests, closure of newspapers, filtering of websites, dismal human rights and moral policing. Still, the veterans of the revolution jealously guard the bastions of power. Pant says that the cry for change are the "the cat paws put by the West to destabilize Iran."

The new-age Iranians will vote, not for radical change, but a stab at normalcy- freedom of speech, student movements, art, culture, fashion and a night-life. If a liberal wins, KA, an English teacher in Tehran, who requested his name not appear, predicts, "We can march and curse the supreme leader again. The energy to revolt will be in the air again."

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