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Analysis: Conservative Presidential Candidates Speak Up In Iran

President Mohammad Khatami (file photo) Two conservative figures have announced their intention to be presidential candidates, although a date for the election has not been announced yet. Continuing controversy over who should or should not be a candidate makes it clear that Iran's right wing is not as monolithic as the conservatives' domination of the February 2004 parliamentary election would lead one to believe.

The first person to announce his candidacy for the 2005 presidential election is former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who is currently an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Radio Farda reported on 27 November. Velayati is considered a conservative, and he met with leaders of the hard-line Islamic Coalition Party just a few days before announcing his candidacy.

At that meeting, according to a commentary in the 24 November "Farhang-i Ashti," Velayati emphasized the need for unity among the conservatives. He was implying that the differences between young right-wingers and middle-aged ones (fundamentalist vs. pro-values) are too great right now for them to agree on a candidate. Velayati falls somewhere in the middle of the rightist current, according to the commentary, between Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Velayati represents the "middle-aged right," according to the commentary.
He predicted that Velayati would withdraw his candidacy to support Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy.

Other prospective conservative candidates include former state broadcasting chief Ali Larijani and Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli. "I hope to be able to run in the presidential election," Tavakoli said at a 6 December rally at Tehran University, IRNA reported. Two days earlier, Tavakoli said in Tehran: "I am serious about participating in the presidential election," Mehr News Agency reported. Tavakoli ran for president in 2001 and in 1993, according to the agency.

Prospective candidates do not actually register until some five weeks before the election, and an actual election date has not been determined yet due to a dispute between the Interior Ministry and Guardians Council. The conservatives can bide their time, therefore, until they throw their weight behind a candidate. This may explain Islamic Coalition Party Secretary-General Mohammad Nabi Habibi's 2 December statement in Tabriz, when he said his organization will not back a candidate other than the one backed by the overall "fundamentalist trend," IRNA reported.

There is little question, however, that the possible candidacy of Hashemi-Rafsanjani is foremost in the minds of political observers. Some Iranians seem enthusiastic about this prospect.

"We support Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the presidential elections," Saber Mir-Atai, deputy secretary-general of the Islamic Homeland Party (Hizb-i Mihan-i Islami), said on 6 December, according to ILNA. Mir-Atai said the party's support depends on the candidate's continuation of President Khatami's reforms, the inclusion of reformists in the cabinet and government, and "moderation of economic programs." Mir-Atai did not explain what this means.

Mohammad Baqer Nobakht, secretary-general of the politically pragmatic Moderation and Development Party (Hizb-i Ettedal va Toseh), said on 3 December that his party backs Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Mehr News Agency reported.

"Opinion polls show that [Ayatollah Ali-Akbar] Hashemi-Rafsanjani is ahead of Velayati, Ahmadinejad, and Larijani, and he can win the presidential election if he decides to enter the election race," Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Fallahian-Khuzestani said during a question-and-answer session at the Al-Hadi seminary in Qom on 2 December, Fars News Agency reported. Fallahian said Tehran Mayor Ahmadinejad is a competent official who is viewed more favorably than Velayati or Larijani, but the conservatives have not decided whether to back or reject his candidacy. If Hashemi-Rafsanjani decides against being a candidate, Fallahian speculated, the conservatives probably will back Velayati.

Other Iranians are reluctant to see Hashemi-Rafsanjani as a candidate. Conservative Mashhad representative Teimur Ali Asgar said Hashemi-Rafsanjani could be a strategist, but "the people have become modernist and would like Mr. Hashemi to leave the field to younger people," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 7 December. Asgari predicted that Velayati would withdraw his candidacy to support Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy, Mehr News Agency reported on 6 December. Mustafa Kavakebian, secretary-general of the reformist Mardom Salari party, said on 4 December that Hashemi-Rafsanjani is one of the country's leading figures, ILNA reported, but it is better for somebody who has completed two presidential terms to let a new candidate fill the slot. Kabutar-Ahang representative Reza Talai-Nik predicted that Hashemi-Rafsanjani's candidacy would reduce the overall number of candidates by 70-80 percent, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on 25 November.

Robin Wright did a very useful classification of the conservative groupings in the 29 November "The Washington Post." The most puritanical group is the "ideological conservatives," or Kayhanis, whose views appear in the "Kayhan" newspaper. The most influential group is the "new right," or neoconservatives, who dominated the February 2004 parliamentary polls and whose platform mixes theocracy and modernism. The "pragmatic conservatives" are connected with the Moderation and Development Party and the Executives of Construction Party. "Traditional conservatives," Wright noted, tend to be less involved in political affairs.

The controversy over candidates goes beyond the 2005 presidential election and it will have a direct impact on Iran's political future. The country's reformists find themselves on their back foot, trying to regain the momentum they lost after the February 2004 parliamentary election. If the conservatives seem unsure of their preferred candidates, the reformists are in even worse shape. Nobody has come forward yet as a serious candidate and the initial first choice, Mir Hussein Musavi, said he was not interested.