Iran’s presidential race got under way today as nominations opened for a successor to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with loyalists close to the Islamic republic’s clerical leaders set to dominate.
Protests erupted after the last vote four years ago, amid allegations that ballot fraud cheated reformists of victory. With Iran at loggerheads with the U.S. over its nuclear program and its economy squeezed by sanctions, analysts say Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will seek to restrict the spectrum of candidates to avoid a repeat in the June 14 vote.
A new feature of this year’s pre-election maneuvering has been the emergence of formal coalitions around potential runners, including former foreign ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Manouchehr Mottaki. That suggests a field of like-minded rivals supportive of Khamenei and unlikely to challenge his core domestic and foreign policies.
“There is a narrowed political space and the competition is within the conservative group,” said Henry Smith, Middle East and North Africa analyst as Control Risks, in a phone interview from London. The potential candidates don’t represent clear movements, “so it’s a case of individuals clubbing together to try and see who looks like he will have a better shot at it.”
More than 20 politicians have announced their intention to run, state-run Press TV reported. They have five days to register. Former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani, who served under ex-President Mohammad Khatami and also has ties to former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, signed up earlier today. Mohammad Saeedi-Kia, former housing and urban development minister, and Kamran Baqeri Lankarani, ex-health minister, also put their names forward, as did Mostafa Kavakebian, a former member of parliament.
All candidates will be vetted by the Guardian Council, which usually reduces the field to less than 10. The 12-member body includes six clerics nominated by Khamenei.
While Khamenei is the final decision-maker on key affairs of the state, the president is able to set the tone at home and abroad.
Khatami, a former culture minister, won with a landslide in 1997, ushering in a period of change such as a freer media, an expansion of social liberties including easing curbs on women’s clothing, and more engagement with western countries.
In 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi advocated similar ideas in a presidential campaign that ended in violent repression of his supporters as they protested. Since then, Mousavi and some of his allies have been placed under house arrest.
Authorities have signaled they’ll try to block candidates who may tap into that vein of discontent.
“Candidates must in their hearts have a belief in the Islamic Republic system and its constitution,” said Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, according to Etemaad newspaper on May 2. “If the Council doesn’t see that, it will not approve them. Perhaps some errors have been committed in the past.”
Velayati, Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser for several years and a lifelong loyalist, is an example of the kind of technocratic candidate who may be favored this time. He has vowed to protect Iran’s nuclear achievements while improving ties with the outside world, Fars news agency reported May 5.
Israel and the U.S. have threatened military strikes to halt Iran’s nuclear program if diplomacy can’t achieve that. Iran says it’s not seeking to build atomic weapons. Sanctions have helped push Iran’s oil output to the lowest in more than two decades, and its inflation rate above 30 percent.
The pre-emptive alliances between potential establishment candidates may help crowd out possible dark horses, as well as strengthening their bids by pooling networks and resources ahead of the two-week official campaign.
Velayati has been joined by Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf and former Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel in what they call the “2+1” group. Each has vowed to endorse whichever among them has the best chance of victory.
A similar understanding drew together a group of five officials that includes Mottaki in the self-proclaimed “Majority Coalition.”
The model may have been encouraged by the ruling elite to ensure a smooth election, analysts say.
“None of the current presidential hopefuls are voter magnets at the national level,” said Yasmin Alem an independent Iran analyst and the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System. “A shift from a personality-centered to a team-based campaign could diminish the security risks associated with national campaigns that are prone to popular outbursts.”
There are potential candidates who could still scupper any plan to keep the election under tight control.
Local media have hinted at a bid by either Khatami or Rafsanjani, who has also expressed sympathy with the opposition movement that supported Mousavi in 2009.
Ahmadinejad, who has fallen out of favor with Khamenei and squabbled with other top officials, is seen as grooming his close aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, for the post, though neither has clarified his intentions.
It would make the contest more interesting “if you saw an outside or atypical candidate be able to make it through the Guardian Council and other institutional hurdles,” Smith said. This time, though, “challenges from outside the conservative establishment would be harder to push through, because of the hostility they would face.”