THE last time Iran had a presidential vote, millions took to the streets calling foul when the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner. Four years on, the Islamic Republic has not yet fully recovered from the ensuing political heart-attack. After a year of demonstrations and repression, the battle for Iran’s future was won by Iran’s conservative hardliners loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Their reformist rivals were sidelined: Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the thwarted reformists’ favourite who claimed to have won the 2009 election, remains under house arrest, along with a fellow candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. Politics, even within the confines of the Islamic state, is as polarised as ever.
Now the reformists are pondering how to pick themselves up for another fight: the first round of the coming presidential poll, on June 14th. Eight candidates are running, following a purge of hundreds of other aspirants by the Guardian Council, a panel of clerics and lawyers, half of them appointed by Mr Khamenei. The council controversially barred a former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whom reformers would probably have backed, from running. Two reform-minded candidates remain: Hassan Rohani and Muhammad Reza Aref, both of whom stayed silent during the tumult after the 2009 poll. The reformists are mulling over whether to throw in their lot with one of them.
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Their likelier choice is Mr Rohani. A 64-year-old clergyman who was educated partly in Glasgow, he was Iran’s leading negotiator on nuclear affairs when the reform-inclined Muhammad Khatami served as president from 1997-2005. In the television debates featuring the candidates in the poll’s run-up, he has criticised Mr Ahmadinejad for fiscal ineptitude and has bemoaned the country’s stifling “security atmosphere”. Mr Aref, educated partly in Stanford, California, shares much of Mr Rohani’s world view and has said that “violations” occurred in the 2009 election. He has lambasted Mr Ahmadinejad for denigrating the protesters who called for reform as “dust and dirt”.
But Messrs Rohani and Aref face formidable conservative opponents. Saeed Jalili, widely considered the front-runner, is a stalwart disciple of the supreme leader and is campaigning on the revolutionary rhetoric of “resistance” as well as traditional Muslim values. Though he lacks a base of his own, Mr Jalili, who wrote a dissertation on the Prophet Muhammad’s foreign policy, is expected to win a big chunk of votes if Mr Khamenei openly endorses him. Rumours abound in Tehran that Mr Ahmadinejad may also at the last minute rally his dwindling loyalists to Mr Jalili’s cause, perhaps to ensure that, if Mr Jalili were to get the job, there would be no risk of legal recriminations against the outgoing president as a result of his tempestuous eight years in office.
At a recent conservative rally, pious young voters inserted Mr Jalili’s name into a famous revolutionary rhyme: “When Jalili comes, the scent of Velayat comes too!” That was a laudatory reference to Velayat-e Faqih (“Guardianship of the Jurist”), the Islamic Republic’s basic tenet that assigns ultimate power to the supreme leader.
A coalition of three other conservatives includes Tehran’s popular mayor, Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf, whose name has been scrawled over several of Mr Jalili’s posters in downtown Tehran. A self-styled technocrat, he compares himself to Amir Kabir, Persia’s modernising 19th-century chief vizier, who was killed by the ruling shah.
Mr Qalibaf is the most unpredictable of the conservative candidates; he was slow to come out against the protesters in 2009. He even said there were more than 3m of them at the silent protest held that June, a much higher figure than the official tally. But in recent months he has been faithful to the ruling establishment, imbuing his language with Islamic references and expressing reverence for Mr Khamenei. By the by, he has emphasised a need to speed up Iran’s internet connections—which have been slowed down in the run-up to the election to make it harder to visit uncensored foreign news sites.
The second bigwig in the conservative coalition is Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign minister during Iran’s long war with Iraq (1980-88) and a long-serving foreign-policy adviser to the supreme leader. His base is among the motalefeh, rich merchants from the bazaars. Since Mr Jalili registered his candidacy—rather late in the day—Mr Velayati’s chances have dipped. But some say that Mr Jalili may be merely a stalking horse for Mr Velayati, the supreme leader’s real choice.
The candidates have divulged only minor details of how they would handle Iran’s long-running nuclear negotiations with the West; in any case, it may not be the topic foremost in voters’ minds. Mr Jalili promises to resist the big powers’ demands, whereas Mr Rohani says he wants to get on better with the West without weakening Iran’s negotiating stance. All the candidates are solidly behind the government of Syria, Iran’s most vital regional ally, in its civil war.
The ruling establishment has yet to declare its clear preference for a candidate. On a state-run television channel Mr Khamenei said that the next president should “tenaciously resist pressure from enemies”, a presumed reference to nuclear talks with the West.
Conservatives chastise Mr Rohani for having co-operated with European governments in 2003 to suspend nuclear enrichment. Mr Khamenei himself publicly deplored those concessions. When questioned on the issue in a television interview, Mr Rohani hotly replied, “What you said is a lie, you know it’s a lie. Maybe… the person speaking to you in your earpiece doesn’t know it, but you know it.”
Because many reformists are still licking their wounds from their disputed loss in 2009, they might be reluctant to vote at all. But a low turnout would probably help the hard men. Still, the vigorous campaigns of Messrs Rohani and Aref, which seem to have been revitalised by the rejection of Mr Rafsanjani’s candidacy, may be gaining more momentum than expected.
So reform-minded Iranians may turn out after all. And it is possible that divisions between the conservatives over who should bear their standard might let a reformer slip through to the second round a week later, in the event that no one gets a first-round majority. Moreover, experience suggests that it is unwise to make heavy bets on Iran’s presidential poll, however assiduously the ruling circle may try to orchestrate its outcome.
From the print edition: Middle East and Africa