IRAN’S reformists led by former president Mohammad Khatami have given their backing to Hasan Rohani, the lone moderate contesting this Friday’s presidential elections.
Mr Rohani hopes to succeed hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is stepping down after serving the maximum eight years in office.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on big issues such as Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme and its support for president Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war.
But the next president may at least change the style of Iran’s dealings with the world after Mr Ahmadinejad steps down in August. He will also be an adviser to Mr Khamenei and take charge of trying to fix an economy battered by sanctions, mismanagement and corruption.
One conservative and the only reformist in the race have dropped out in the past two days, leaving four candidates ultra-loyal to Mr Khamenei, one outsider, and Mr Rohani, a moderate cleric.
Mr Khatami, who won two presidential election landslides in 1997 and 2001, threw his weight behind Mr Rohani yesterday after Mohammad Reza Aref, the sole reformist candidate approved by Iran’s Guardian Council, withdrew on Monday night. Mr Aref was seen as lacklustre and lacking support.
The reformists’ backing of Mr Rohani, a former chief nuclear negotiator known for his conciliatory approach, is an effort to attract the votes of Iranians hoping for greater freedoms and an end to diplomatic isolation.
A high election turnout, with no repeat of the violent protests that followed the disputed 2009 poll, will be a stamp of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic.
The possibility of popular momentum mounting behind Mr Rohani, just as it appeared to shift behind two reformist candidates in the 2009 election, may spur hardliners to thin their field of candidates to stand a better chance of victory.
Among the hardliners, chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili appears to be a leading candidate.