Iran poised to choose a successor to Ahmadinejad

A supporter carries a campaign poster for Iranian presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie. Picture: Reuters
A supporter carries a campaign poster for Iranian presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaie. Picture: Reuters
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The stormy era of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad draws to a close today as millions of Iranians vote for a new president.

They go to the polls aware their vote is unlikely to bring significant change but hoping it might make some difference to their difficult, everyday lives.

Iran’s unelected supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has ensured hardline candidates loyal to him dominate the field.

Yet, typical of Iranian presidential elections – no matter how tightly controlled – the contest has been fraught and the result is uncertain.

Hasan Rowhani, the sole moderate candidate, could yet upset the race after emerging as a possible wildcard.

He won vital backing on Tuesday from two pro-reform leaders, Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both former presidents. The latter was barred from running by a vetting body which answer to Mr Khamenei.

The four hardliners competing for the presidency failed to unite behind a single candidate to avoid splitting the conservative vote. Prominent among them was Iran’s uncompromising nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, a protégé of the supreme leader. But polls indicate he is trailing behind Tehran’s conservative mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

The vote is being closely watched by western capitals for signs of what impact it could have on deadlocked, high-stakes nuclear negotiations between Iran and six world powers – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany.

But the economy – battered by international sanctions and fiscal mismanagement – is the main concern for Iranian voters.

Inflation is officially running at more than 30 per cent and unemployment is soaring, particularly among the young. All six presidential hopefuls agree there must be no compromise on Tehran’s right to enrich uranium for power generation, and none has questioned Iran’s staunch support for the Syrian regime.

But, to the dismay of Mr Khamenei, it became clear in a televised debate last week that they differ widely on how to handle nuclear negotiations. Mr Jalili was attacked for his nuclear diplomacy by another Khamenei loyalist, Ali Akbar Velayati. Such discord will encourage western governments.

Meanwhile Mr Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, argued that a less confrontational foreign policy would allow Iran to advance its nuclear programme while easing western concerns and allowing for sanctions to be rolled back.

The regime’s immediate concern, however, is that the election passes smoothly. Iran’s ruling establishment is scarred by the tempest that marred Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election four years ago when the reformist camp claimed it was robbed of victory by vote-rigging, igniting the biggest street protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The peaceful uprising was brutally crushed, ensuring Iran’s future was secured by hardliners, but the system’s legitimacy was badly tarnished at home and abroad.

For this reason, turnout ­tomorrow is another major regime concern, with Mr Khamenei equating a strong showing at the polls with trust in Iran’s political system.

While all six candidates are ardent supporters of the Islamic revolution, their views are far from uniform.

In televised debates there were disagreements over the economy, censorship, academic and personal freedoms and nuclear policy.

Mr Rowhani, the only cleric in the race, has called for political prisoners to be freed and less government interference in Iranians’ daily lives. He has also promised that in his administration “differences between men and women won’t be tolerated”.

If no-one wins an outright majority today, the vote goes to a run-off between the top two next Friday.