Tuesday, May 10, 2005

FT.com / Middle East & Africa - Registration for Iran's presidential election begins

FT.com / Middle East & Africa - Registration for Iran's presidential election begins: "Registration for Iran's presidential election begins
By Gareth Smyth in Tehran
Published: May 10 2005 11:39 | Last updated: May 10 2005 11:39

Registration for Iran's presidential election began on Tuesday without final confirmation that Akbar Hashemi Rasfanjani would stand again for the post he held between 1989 and 1997.

Candidates have until Saturday to register for the June 17 election, with Mr Rafsanjani having apparently delayed announcing his decision for fear of 'character assassination' by hardliners who resent his brand of conservative pragmatism.

Conservative critics of the former president also resent the way Mr Rafsanjani's supporters portray him as the only man capable of dealing with the growing international crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear programme.

One close ally of Mr Rafsanjani said that his election campaign was ready and merely awaiting an announcement. But another said he was seeking a meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, to clarify issues surrounding the election.

The election marks the end of the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, who must stand down after two terms in office.

Mr Rafsanjani has in the past week faced growing hostility from Iran's hardline media, and eyebrows have been raised at the way Ayatollah Khamenei has apparently lent weight to the anti-Rafsanjani campaign.

An election in which Ayatollah Khamenei backed a candidate against Mr Rafsanjani could be hazardous for the regime, which usually keeps serious differences behind closed doors.

But one senior official cautioned against being misled by appearances. "The leader's relationship with [Mr] Rafsanjani is like marriage, or a love-hate relationship," he said. "If the country faces a crisis, the leader will accept Mr Rafsanjani standing."

Nevertheless, during a ten-day tour of the southern province of Kerman, Ayatollah Khamenei's speeches have laid emphasis on security, which some analysts see as a message favouring Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, former Revolutionary Guard commander and police chief, and a conservative candidate in the June election.

Ayatollah Khamenei has also argued that a new president should have "patience", a quality he has previously associated with youth.

During a weekend television debate, Hossein Shariatmadari, the leader's appointee as editor-in-chief of Kayhan newspaper, said Ayatollah Khamenei's call for a young candidate was clear. At 43, Mr Qalibaf is 27 years Mr Rafsanjani's junior.

But militant conservatives remain divided.

The Council for Co-ordinating Revolutionary Forces backs Ali Larijani, the former head of state broadcasting.

The so-called 'Coalition of Four plus One', which includes Mr Qalibaf, Mohsen Razaei, former chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Tehran's mayor, and Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's former foreign minister has yet to decide on a favoured candidate. Ahmad Tavakoli, a prominent deputy, recently withdrew.

Many analysts expect the hardline camp to coalesce around one candidate, even if this requires intervention from the office of Ayatollah Khamenei.

The conservatives are confident of winning the election, and expect the Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog, to disqualify Mostafa Moein, the main reformist candidate.

A senior of reformist on Tuesday denied a rumour that Mir Hossein Mousavi - prime minister during the 1980s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led Iran - would take up the reformist banner with a late declaration.

The Iranian media on Monday reported an opinion poll by state television that gave Mr Rafsanjani the support of 32 per cent, well ahead of Mr Qalibaf at 14 per cent and with no other candidate winning more than 10 per cent.

Such polls have proved unreliable, however, and the unpredictability of the election is underscored by the likelihood of a low turn-out.

Should no candidate win more than half the votes on June 17, there would be a run-off two weeks later between the two candidates who poll best in the first round."