TEHRAN – Two of Iran’s most controversial figures announced Saturday that they are seeking to be candidates to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president.
The emergence of two-term former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad’s top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, dramatically changed the landscape of an election that until recently most observers thought would be fought between conservative candidates loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Instead, if confirmed as candidates, both men will be likely to draw support from Iranians who have backed reformists in the past.
The arrival of Rafsanjani, 78, at election headquarters in Tehran with less than 10 minutes left to register his candidacy caused a frenzy among supporters and journalists.
President from 1989 until 1997, Rafsanjani is considered a founding father of the Islamic republic and will likely receive the support of another former president, Mohammad Khatami.
Thought to be one of Iran’s wealthiest people, Rafsanjani has also become a symbol of the corruption that has long afflicted the country’s politics. But others see him as a pragmatic leader who might be able to mend Iran’s relations with the United States.
Amid tight security, Rafsanjani made his way through the crowd to the registration center. As he arrived at the designated desk, it became clear that Mashaei, flanked by Ahmadinejad, was registering simultaneously just a short distance away.
Afterward, Mashaei and Ahmadinejad entered a hall packed with journalists where the prospective candidate held up an ink-stained finger and his Iranian identity certificate, signifying that he had registered. Like the incumbent president, Mashaei has fallen out of favor with the ruling clerics; some have accused him of being part of a “deviant current” that is opposed to clerical rule.
All key policies in Iran are made by the clerics and their inner circle, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. But the president is the international face of the country, and is responsible for increasingly important areas such as the nation’s stumbling economy.
Most of the main candidates have vowed to shun Ahmadinejad’s style and to try to reduce tensions with the West and its allies. But all strongly support Iran’s ability to maintain a full-scale nuclear program, including uranium enrichment.
Critics and rivals of Ahmadinejad have accused the current president of trying to employ what they call a “Putin-Medvedev” plan similar to the maneuvers atop Russia’s government, in which Ahmadinejad will stay close to power if Mashaei becomes president and then run for a third term after being out of office for four years, which is allowed under the Iranian Constitution.
The actions by Rafsanjani and Mashaei instantly infused the race with an energy it had lacked, and their candidacies, if approved, will likely inspire greater voter turnout in the election, set for June 14. The 12-member Guardian Council has until May 23 to approve or reject prospective candidacies, a decision it bases on factors such as education and loyalty to the Islamic Revolution and its political system.
The initial process of registering to be a candidate is open to all, and almost 700 Iranians did so during the process that began Tuesday. But only a handful of candidates are expected to ultimately appear on the ballot.
Both Rafsanjani and Mashaei have been central players in Iranian politics for years, making it potentially difficult for the council to reject them. Rafsanjani said in the past week that he will run only with the supreme leader’s approval.
“Iran’s election picture will remain hazy until vetting is done — perhaps longer,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. “But today reaffirms lesson 1 in Iranian politics: Iran has politics.”
Saturday also saw several members of the conservative faction known as “principlists,” for their loyalty to the founding principles of the Islamic Republic, enter the race. Most prominent were Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, and longtime Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a pediatrician who trained in America.
Ghalibaf and Velayati, along with former Parliament Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, compose a three-candidate coalition. They have agreed to support the one among them with the most public support leading up to the election.
Velayati, an adviser to Khamenei, is believed by many to be the head of state’s preferred candidate.
Other candidates who registered Saturday included Saeed Jalili, the country’s chief nuclear negotiator; Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, and Ali Akbar Javanfekr, who formerly ran state television and is a top ally of Ahmadinejad.
At least 20 high-ranking politicians were among the many who signed up to become candidates, but it was the emergence of Rafsanjani and Mashaei in the final moments of the registration process that captured the attention of journalists who had been waiting since morning to confirm whether either man would run.