Even though the elections are still some nine months away and the candidates' names have not yet been put forward, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seems to have already made up his mind about who should win.
On August 24, Khamenei, who has the last word on all matters related to the Islamic Republic, was quoted as saying that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad should plan on remaining in power for a second term. The remarks were published on Khamenei's website and also by Iran's official state news agency IRNA.
Yet just a few hours later, some of his comments -- made during a meeting with Ahmadinejad and his cabinet -- were mysteriously removed from both websites.
Khamenei had reportedly told Ahmadinejad to work in his last year as if it were his first year.
However, he added that the president should plan for another term: "In other words, imagine that in addition to this year, another four years will be under your management. Work with this in mind; act and plan accordingly."
Iran's newspapers, however, did not report these particular remarks.
'Not In The Interests'
Tehran-based analyst Sadegh Zibakalam believes the comments were censored following an order by the leader himself.
"Even if Ayatollah Khamenei would want deep down in his heart Ahmadinejad to be the winner of Iran's future presidential elections, he wouldn't express his wish so clearly and publicly," Zibakalam says. "Government officials, officials in charge of Iran's official news agency, were probably so happy about Khamenei's comments that they didn't realize the way they published his comments was not in the interests of the Islamic Republic."
Khamenei's apparent endorsement of Ahmadinejad puts Iran's future presidential election in question. An open backing of the president by the leader could lead Khamenei’s loyalists to vote for Ahmadinejad. Some observers believe Khamenei's support for Ahmadinejad was a key factor in his surprise election in 2005.
Among them is Shahram Rafizadeh, an Iranian journalist based in Toronto.
“The remarks by Iran's supreme leader are a sign of his unconditional support for Ahmadinejad’s government, a government that came to power with his special backing,” Rafizadeh says.
Ahmadinejad has been increasingly criticized in recent months and weeks over his handling of the economy and rising inflation and unemployment, which has led to growing public discontent. The inflation recently reached 26 percent and the official unemployment rate has hit 10 percent. Economists, however, believe the real rate is closer to 30 percent.
The criticism has come not only from pro-reform politicians but also conservatives who seem to have lost patience with the president.
Last week, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and Ahmadinejad’s main rival during Iran's last presidential elections, lambasted the government over economic problems and issues such as power and water cuts across the country.
The problems that exist in Iran cannot be ignored by those living there.
Zibakalam says even some hard-liners are now criticizing Ahmadinejad.
“The problem Ahmadinejad’s government is facing -- and to a certain degree, Khamenei -- is that gradually, significant numbers of hard-liners have turned into Ahamdinejad’s critics because of his economic policies and his performance on the international scene, which has put Iran under the shadow of sanctions, isolation and even military attack," Zibakalam says. "The problems that exist in Iran cannot be ignored by those living there.”
Despite such problems, Khamenei praised Ahmadinejad for his handling of the nuclear issue, saying that the president and government had stood up to the “excessive demands” of “bullying and brazen countries.”
Khamenei’s unusually strong backing of Ahmadinejad and his government could silence some of the critics. Ahmadinejad later described the leader’s approval of his government’s performance as “a medal of honor.”
The day after some of the comments were published, Iran’s hard-line daily described the remarks as a “conclusive statement” in support of the government.
Maintain His Support?
So has the fate of Iran’s future presidential elections already been decided?
Some observers believe it remains to be seen whether Ahmadinejad will mange to keep Khamenei’s backing.
Zibakalam believes citizens will still have a say.
“If we interpret Ayatollah Khamenei’s comments as a done deal, meaning that Ahmadinejad will be Iran’s next president -- whether we like it or not -- then this is tantamount to the end of the republic system of the establishment," Zibakalam says. "But I don’t think this is the case. Even if the leader supports such view, in the end I think it’s up to the citizens to decide whether they want Ahmadinejad to be president for a second time or not.”
Some disagree, like this Iranian citizen who shared his skepticism with RFE/RL's Radio Farda: “It’s nothing unusual, not just one term, or two terms. [Ahamdinejad] can remain in power for [as many terms] as [Khamenei] would want him. Anyhow, I hope the people of Iran will [have a say].”
Radio Farda broadcasters Mohammad Zarghami and Nima Tamaddon contributed to this report