June 11, 2009 / 3:15 PM / 11 years ago

Afghans hope Iran poll brings U.S., Tehran closer

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - On the eve of Iran’s hard-fought presidential election, many Afghans hope a victory for the more moderate of the two leading candidates could help ease tensions between their neighbor and the United States.

Moderate former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi has launched a serious challenge to hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who maintains an unflinching stand against the United States despite President Barack Obama’s suggestion of direct talks on a range of issues [ID:nHAF818930]

Victory for Mousavi could raise the prospect of better ties between the Islamic Republic and the United States at a time when Washington is struggling to stabilize Afghanistan and secure stable and dependable supply routes for some 56,000 troops it has fighting an increasingly bitter Taliban-led insurgency.

“If Iranian and American relations improve, it will have a positive impact on us, one hundred percent,” said Karim Alemi, the manager of a hotel in Herat city, about 125 km (80 miles) east of the border with Iran.

“Most of the problems here that involve Iran or Pakistan are because of America’s presence, and if America is opposed to them or they are opposed to America then it will be negative for us.”

A sudden thaw in U.S.-Iran ties after three decades of hostility is unlikely even if Mousavi wins, partly because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last say on foreign policy and Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which worry the West.

But it could help in Afghanistan. Iranian influences are everywhere in western Herat province, from the type of food served in restaurants to the millions of dollars worth of trade which takes place across the border each year.

“If Iran and America work together and cooperate more, then Afghanistan’s situation would definitely improve,” said 19-year-old Herat student Nasser Azimi.

“I don’t know that much about the elections but I know if Mousavi wins, if there’s a more reformist leader in Iran, then it would be better for us here, too,” Azimi said.

Mousavi and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, the other moderate challenging Ahmadinejad, have talked of a new page with Washington. Even though nothing can happen without the approval of Khamenei, victory for Mousavi or Karoubi could at least put him under pressure to show flexibility.

Even though it is still a deeply religious province, women in Herat don’t suffer the same levels of violence and insecurity as those in south and east Afghanistan. A more moderate Iranian president could also have a positive influence on their rights.

“We are hopeful that the removal of any limits to the rights of women in Iran would benefit the world in general as well as have a positive effect on Afghanistan,” said Soraya Pakzhad, head of a women’s rights organization in Herat.

“With the program that Mr. Mousavi has put forth, there is more hope of that,” Pakzhad said. “No one man is able or should be able to be in a position to remove rights from anyone, rights are above the power of one man and are of global interest.”

Editing by Paul Tait

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