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In Run-Up To Iran Vote, Rohani Takes Up Reformist Mantle


Hassan Rohani supporters in Ahvaz, Iran on June 3
With just days to go to Iran's presidential election, signs were emerging of a dark-horse reformist candidate in 64-year-old cleric Hassan Rohani.

While not a declared reformist, Rohani has increasingly sounded themes that appear directly aimed at reformist voters ahead of the June 14 poll.

Rohani told supporters in Sari, the capital of the northern Mazandaran Province, on June 9 that he would end political suppression in Iran if he were elected.

"There should be an end to the suppression and radicalism of the last eight years," he said, referring to the two terms in office of outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

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That statement came one day after Rohani told supporters in Tehran that he would also free all political prisoners.

Both statements seem aimed at galvanizing reformist voters, who have felt sidelined since Ahmadinejad's reelection in 2009. The outcome, which many Iranians believe was rigged, sparked mass protests that were met with violence by the authorities and led to the arbitrary arrests of thousands.

And his role as an opposition champion appeared even more secure on July 11 after the pullout of the only other relative moderate in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref.

That move, reportedly at the behest of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami in an effort to unite the opposition, cleared the way for Khatami to endorse Rohani's candidacy. Khatami's advisory council said it was backing Rohani as the "reformist camp candidate."

Reformist Ally

Merhdad Emadi, an Iranian economic specialist with the London-based Data Matrix Systems, says that Rohani is attracting the attention of some disillusioned younger voters.

"All the indicators suggest that in the absence of a real candidate, or ideal candidate for reformers, Mr. Rohani appears to be the closest substitute who can actually entice a large segment of reform-seeking voters who felt completely excluded," Emadi says. "We see traction with the younger people who were completely switched off even until just two weeks ago."

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Rohani's public appeal for freeing political prisoners came as a last-minute campaign surprise. Both he and Aref stayed silent during the tumult after the 2009 election, though both said later that "violations" occurred during the poll.

As a close ally of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafasanjani, Rohani has increasingly moved to appeal to both moderate and reformist voters since Iran's election-supervising Guardians Council controversially barred Rafsanjani's own candidacy. Rafsanjani was widely considered capable of attracting the reformist vote because his camp has openly feuded with those of both Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei over the repression of the opposition movement.

Last week, Rohani aired a promotional video on television that praised Rafsanjani, prompting speculation that Rafsanjani could give him his official endorsement before election day.

Centrifuges And Lives

Rohani is no stranger to politics. He previously served as Iran's leading negotiator on nuclear affairs during Khatami's presidency and he has taken a forceful posture against his conservative rivals in Iran's three candidate debates.

The clergyman has said he wants better relations with the West without weakening Iran's negotiating stance over its controversial nuclear program. He appeared to fault the policies of Said Jalili, Iran's current chief nuclear negotiator and a leading conservative presidential candidate, for leading Iran into punitive economic sanctions.

In the last of the debates, Rohani said on June 7 that "it is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running."

Jalili, in turn, lambasted the "soft" strategy of previous administrations, saying it undermined Iran through subservience to Western powers.

There have been signs that conservatives could push back hard at Rohani before the June 14 vote. On June 9, Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency reported that the powerful Guardians Council would consider whether to retroactively disqualify Rohani's candidacy. However, Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai said on June 10 that "a further review of the qualifications of candidates has not been raised and we deny such a thing."

The question is whether Rohani could galvanize sufficient support to win the election.

'Lots Of Tension'

Scott Lucas, an Iranian affairs expert at Britain's Birmingham University, says Rohani may have a chance if the election is fair, if the moderate and reformist candidates form a coalition, and if the conservative candidates split their own vote among themselves.

"I think we are in a period up until Friday's election where you have a lot of tension amongst what the conservatives do and you have a lot of tension over whether there will be a coalition between the moderates and reformists," Lucas says.

If there is no clear winner in the first round, the election will go to a second vote a week later.

The number of candidates has been narrowed from eight to six.

In addition to Aref dropping out of the race, former parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel on June 10 also withdrew.

Adel, who is related by marriage to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not state a reason.