First Published: 2005-05-02

Iranian presidential race takes shape

one of several hardline contenders pulls out to strengthen anticipated battle against top cleric, Rafsanjani.


Middle East Online

By Stefan Smith - TEHRAN

Rafsanjani served as president from 1989 to 1997

Iran's presidential election race was taking shape on Monday, with one of several hardline contenders pulling out to strengthen an anticipated battle against top cleric and more moderate conservative Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

In a statement carried by the Iranian press, right-wing MP Ahmad Tavakoli said his decision to stop campaigning ahead of the June 17 poll was made to "favour the designation of a single candidate" representing the right-wing.

He also cited the need to "avert the danger" of a continuation of "the process of the past 16 years" - a clear reference to Rafsanjani who served as president from 1989 to 1997.

Incumbent President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who was first elected in 1997, cannot stand again because the constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms in office.

Rafsanjani, a pragmatic conservative and still one of Iran's most powerful figures, has already clearly signalled that he will attempt a comeback in next month's election.

His presidential bid is expected to benefit from divisions within the ultra-conservative camp, which even with the withdrawal of Tavakoli has so far not managed to rally around a single figure.

With reformers lacking a strong candidate, analysts say Rafsanjani could also count on the backing of moderates hoping to stem a hardline takeover - while at the same time holding the support of centrists and traditional conservatives.

Iran's main conservative alliance, the Council for Coordinating Forces in the Islamic Revolution (CCFIR), has chosen the hardline former state television boss Ali Larijani - now an advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - as its candidate.

But two of his rivals, populist ex-police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, have refused to pull out. In addition, Tehran's mayor Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad is also believed to be considering joining the race.

Speaking to AFP, Qalibaf said he believed he was still "the most serious rival for Mr Rafsanjani" - a view that appears to be backed up by informal opinion polls.

Another conservative candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, is seen as being closer to Rafsanjani and may pull out in his favour, analysts said.

Presidential candidates are subject to approval by the Guardians Council, an unelected body controlled by hardliners. It was the council which blacklisted nearly all reformist candidates ahead of the February 2004 parliamentary elections.

The Council could block the main reformist candidate, former higher education minister Mustafa Moin.

Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, Iran's top political arbitration body, and is it is seen as unlikely he will be rejected.

After months of talking about a possible new bid for the presidency, he last week sent out clear signals that he is all-but certain to stand - but then stated that he has yet to make a final decision.

Prospective candidates must register their intention to stand between May 10 and 14, after which the Guardian Council's screening process begins. A final list of contenders is expected later in May.


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