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Reformists Consolidate Behind Rohani, But Can He Win?

A supporter of Hassan Rohani holds a campaign poster of the candidate during a rally in Ahvaz in western Iran.
Iran's reformist movement is now backing a sole candidate: Hassan Rohani.

But how far he can go in the June 14 election and how much he could realize reformists' hopes remain open questions.

Rohani, a 64-year-old cleric, became the reformists' single candidate on June 10 after fellow moderate Mohammad Reza Aref withdrew from the race.

Aref said the head of the reformist movement, former President Mohammad Khatami, had asked him to step aside so as to consolidate support for Rohani, who was Iran's nuclear negotiator during Khatami's presidency.

That means Rohani now assumes the leadership mantle for a widening reformist coalition that can get out the vote for him on June 14.

Not only does he have the backing of Khatami, he also is a close ally of another powerful reformist-minded figure, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Some observers even see Rohani as now substituting for Rafsanjani, who was widely viewed as the reformists' best hope before the hard-line Guardians Council that determines the final list of candidates barred him from running.

Economic Policies 'Less Clear'

Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer in Iranian politics at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center in Israel, says Rohani and Rafsanjani share some positions but differ on others.

"When it comes to the nuclear program, there are similarities between them. They both want a more moderate and pragmatic approach," Javedanfar says. "But I don't see similarity in another important field, which to the people of Iran is far more important, and that is the economy. Ayatollah Rafsanjani wants a more open economy, wants more players in the economy, but Mr. Rohani has not emphasized that. His economic policies are less clear."

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Javedanfar says that Rohani has yet to echo Rafsanjani's calls for liberalizing the economy, which is dominated by state or quasi-state monopolies and unable to grow enough to provide jobs for Iran's youthful population. He now may have to address such concerns if he hopes to galvanize broad support among reformist-minded voters interested in more economic freedom as well as a more liberal political environment.

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So far, Rohani has reached out to disillusioned voters by saying he would free all political prisoners if elected. That appeals to supporters of Iran's Green Movement, which protested the 2009 elections as being rigged by the establishment to assure current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad a second term. During the 2009-10 protests, thousands were arrested and many remain in jail.

But how well Rohani does in the election depends as much on other players in the contest as on his own campaigning.

Many analysts say Hassan Rohani could make it to a second-round vote if the elections are relatively fair and the remaining field splits the rest of the vote.
Many analysts say Hassan Rohani could make it to a second-round vote if the elections are relatively fair and the remaining field splits the rest of the vote.
Several analysts say he could make it to the second-round if the elections are relatively fair and the remaining field of five varyingly conservative candidates split the rest of the vote. If the June 14 election fails to produce a clear winner -- requiring 50 percent plus one vote -- a second round would take place a week later.

However, Rohani's chances would be reduced if conservatives do what the reformist camp has done: consolidate support behind fewer candidates.

'Very Small' Chance To Win

Whether Rohani could actually be elected president is the biggest question of all. Javedanfar says the more he reaches out to reformists the more he alienates yet another unseen player in the election: the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

"I think the chances of Mr. Rohani winning are very small," Javedanfar says. "For him to win he would need the support of the IRGC, which is a crucial player in Iranian politics today. I don't see the IRGC supporting Mr. Rohani. Their views are very different with regards to the nuclear program."

CHECK OUT: RFE/RL's Extensive Iran Election Coverage

He says the IRGC could press for election results to be manipulated rather than accept a president who criticizes the success of Iran's current nuclear policy. Rohani has questioned Tehran's uncompromising negotiating stance, which has led to punitive Western sanctions, even as he backs Iran's right to all aspects of a nuclear program.

Whether Rohani can win or not, the fact that he is using his campaign to express many Iranians' wishes for a less suppressive state makes him an important force for change.

Even the mentioning of these objectives, which are really popular demands, shows that he understands what the people wish to see for the country in the next few years," says Merhdad Emadi, an Iranian economic specialist with the London-based Data Matrix Systems. "And introducing them as part of his official election campaign cannot be a bad thing. At least it indicates that he wishes to see a softening of the political and security atmosphere."

He says that message, like the reformists themselves, will survive the results of the June 14 election no matter who becomes the Islamic republic's next president.