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Who Will Be Iran's Supreme Presidential Candidate?

Any candidate who wants to be Iran's next president will need the blessing of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
If Iran's supreme leader were to write a job description for the country's next president, loyalty and obedience to the Islamic establishment would be high on the list of requirements.

Iran observers are quick to point this out when considering the type of characteristics Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- the highest authority in Iran, whose influence will play a large role in determining whose names make the ballot -- is looking for as potential candidates officially register this week.

To this point the supreme leader has made scant mention of how the future president should fit into Iran's theocratic structure, however.

"Those who lead the executive branch should resist against our enemies' pressure," Khamenei was quoted as saying in an April 27 speech to workers. "They shouldn't be afraid and should not leave the scene quickly."

In a May 6 speech to election officials, Khamenei expanded on his desired candidate profile, saying the president should be a man of the people, a hard worker, and someone who is wise and strong.

His use of the word "principlist" -- a political camp that in general embodies the highly conservative views of the supreme leader and clerical bodies -- was the closest Khamenei came to revealing what side of the spectrum the ideal candidate should come from.

Analysts believe that Khamenei's desired candidate will be a hard-liner who shares Khamenei's deep commitment to revolutionary values as well as his anti-Western sentiments and deep distrust toward the United States.

They also see a need for a pragmatist capable of pulling the country out of an economic crisis spurred by crippling international sanctions and domestic mismanagement.

Is There A Mr. Right?

Khamenei has said on a number of occasions that the country needs to move toward a "resistive economy" to fight the sanctions and free itself from its dependency on oil revenues.

Ultimately, says Karim Sadjadpour, Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the supreme leader is looking for the best of both worlds: "a hand-kissing revolutionary ideologue who is a good manager and has popular support."

Finding that candidate could prove illusive, however. "I don't think there is any individual who checks off all of these boxes," says Sadjadpour, the author of an in-depth political profile of Iran's supreme leader.

Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, concurs, saying that Khamenei is interested in conflicting traits that are difficult to find in one person.

"On the one hand he wants someone who is fully obedient -- like a facilitator or even less -- at the same time he believes that person should be able to solve people's economic problems and also carry some minor weight on the international scene," Milani says. "He wants to be the main figure himself."

A Relationship Gone Sour

Ironically, the perception in 2005 was that Khamenei had found a president he could get along with. The surprise winner of that year's presidential election, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, was widely believed to have come to power with the backing of the Iranian leader and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Likewise, Ahmadinejad's hotly disputed reelection in 2009 is also believed to have been sealed with Khamenei's approval.

Khamenei publicly acknowledged in 2009 that Ahmadinejad's views were closer to his than those of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was considered a pragmatist. Despite the emergence of cracks in their relationship, in 2010 Khamenei was said to have made comments that signaled his continued support for Ahmadinejad.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei no longer see eye to eye.
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (right) and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei no longer see eye to eye.

"In the current situation there are differences of opinion, and I don't agree with some issues," Khamenei was quoted as saying in 2010 by Hojatoleslam Eslamian, a member of the Society of Seminary Teachers. "But now when the supreme leader says something, the president accepts it and acts accordingly."

Of course, those comments came before the well-documented power struggle with Khamenei and his allies that led to Ahmadinejad's fall from grace.

The outgoing president's repeated attempts to carve out more influence for the executive office; his support for Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a presidential aide who has been accused of trying to undermine Iran's powerful clergy and who is reputedly Ahmadinejad's preferred successor; and his confrontational style both at home and abroad have turned most of his former supporters against him.

ALSO READ: Rafsanjani Gets More Vocal On Iran's Policies, Presidential Run

In the end, Khamenei's former protege turned into a headache for the supreme leader, who appears to be doing his best to ensure Ahmadinejad's political influence ends with the completion of his second term in office.

The experience boosts expectations that Khamenei will take pains to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. In a March speech, he said the country's next president should have the strengths of the previous one, while staying away from his weaknesses. He has also said he prefers a president who won't create "problems" or offer "baseless promises."

As Iran comes under unprecedented international pressure, Khamenei more than ever needs unity within the establishment and an end to the internal rifts that have been exacerbated by the divisive Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei wields significant influence over the Guardians Council -- a body whose members are appointed by the supreme leader and comes up with the final list of presidential candidates -- and on Iran's Central Election Board, which oversees the elections.

An Electorate Of One

Considering this reality, it appears likely that the next president will be chosen from an array of politicians close to Khamenei's camp.

Any candidates seen as close to Ahmadinejad, including Mashaei, have virtually no chance with Khamenei. It can also be expected that no reformist candidates will receive the backing of the supreme leader, who has managed to effectively eliminate the reformist faction from the political scene.

Even among conservative figures known for their loyalty to the establishment, only those whom Khamenei feels he can fully trust will have a chance, according to Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who is working on a biography of the supreme leader. "Khamenei wants to make sure that they lack personal and factional ambition, he wants to make sure that they will act as his manager and as the executor of his orders," he says.

Sadjadpour says it will be interesting to see whether presidential hopefuls focus primarily on attracting Khamenei's vote, or the popular vote. "The slogans you would use to please a 73-year-old revolutionary ideologue are very different from the slogans you'd use to appeal to a predominantly young and modern electorate," he notes.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.