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Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) and Ebrahim Raisi speak just before the second presidential debate on May 5 in Tehran.

They are sleek contrasts in style and tone. But the campaign videos of the presidential race's two presumed front-runners are even further apart in their message to Iran's 55 million eligible voters.

They are sleek contrasts in style and tone. But the campaign videos of the presidential race's two presumed front-runners are even further apart in their message to Iran's 55 million eligible voters.

Incumbent Hassan Rohani, a 68-year-old relative moderate with four years and a contentious nuclear deal with world powers under his belt, tells Iranians that "we are halfway there." Continue the journey with me, he says.

Ebrahim Raisi, a longtime prosecutor who some say could eventually succeed the country's aging supreme leader, says he's in the race to "save people from this situation."

It can be notoriously tricky to predict election outcomes in Iran, where candidates can drop out at the last moment and polling is unreliable.

But as three weeks of official campaigning winds down ahead of the May 19 presidential vote, clues to each man's strategy emerge from the clips, which have been complemented by live debates among six candidates and measured appeals by surrogates on Iranian state media. (A conservative candidate on the ballot, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, withdrew with a week left; and reformist First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, a Rohani ally, dropped out on May 16.)

Rohani, a cleric who oversaw the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that limited Tehran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief, is seen shaking hands with world leaders.

"Through constructive engagement, we want our rights," Rohani intones, alluding to his efforts to bring Tehran in from the cold, diplomatically and economically.

Although he is seeking a second four-year term, Rohani blames policies of the past for some problems while highlighting his own achievements, including improved access to medication and projects of environmental revival.

Conservative cleric Raisi, by most accounts the president's leading rival, is shown in his campaign video visiting the poor to offer comfort. He criticizes poverty, unemployment, and the banking and monetary system, and says that Iranians deserve more.

Raisi recalls his childhood as an orphan, saying he hasn't just heard about poverty. "I have felt it," says the man named just over a year ago to head one of the country's wealthiest and most politically influential charities, adding, "It can be done."

There are plenty of other signature moments.

'Laughing Not Haram'

At one point, Rohani, who sharpened his tone once the official three-week campaign began, pokes fun at state broadcasting, mocked by many Iranians for its tough censorship and low-quality programming.

"Our state TV," he says, simply laughing. The audience claps and cheers in approval.

In another scene, the Iranian president speaks of hope and the need for people to be able to be joyful. "Nothing is more important than hope for a nation," Rohani says. "Do not make people despair. Let people be a bit happy."

And later: "How come crying is 'halal' but a bit of laughing is 'haram'?" he asks, invoking the Koranic terms for behaviors that are acceptable or prohibited.

The Rohani video also highlights achievements by Iranian athletes, including women whom the president identifies by name and credits with bringing joy to Iranians. "Today, by the grace of God, our women have gotten onto the sports scene," he says over images of top female athletes in action and receiving medals.

Highlights Women, Minorities

Rohani's video also highlights the importance of the role of women in society.

Some of the president's critics on the left have accused him of abandoning his pledges from 2013 to seek greater rights for women, who face discrimination in the eyes of the courts, on public transportation and at public events, and in many other spheres.

"How is it possible to have a successful economy if half of society's members stay at home?" he asks, adding, "What kind of thinking is it to believe that women's security and morality are only secured within the four walls of a house?"

Rohani's video also features images of Iran's ethnic minorities, saying that they should not be seen as a threat but are part of what lends greatness to Iran.

Rohani also raises concerns about online censorship, including Iranian authorities' routine filtering of social media to prevent the general public from access to news, information, and Western influence. The clip shows images of social-media accounts belonging to Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Can we live with filtering and bans?" he asks.

Rohani also advocates for freedom of speech, saying that opponents and critics should also be able to express themselves. The video shows newspaper headlines blasting him and his policies.

'Friend Of The Poor'

Raisi's video includes images of the poor, including street children, juxtaposed with luxury buildings and massive shopping malls that the video blames for taking a toll on jobs. It portrays Rohani's government as favoring the rich.

In one of the scenes, a man is sitting on the floor of his house, speaking into the camera: "I don't have insurance, nor an income." "I have nothing," he adds.

The scene is followed by newspaper headlines over a controversy that erupted last year concerning lucrative salaries for government officials.

The video is peppered with segments of Raisi's speeches in which he criticizes the gap between the rich and poor and corruption. "We have never seen such stagnation," he laments.

In one scene, the camera zooms in on headlines in English-language media speculating that Raisi could be a candidate to succeed Khamenei, who is the country's ultimate leader in political and religious affairs.

Conservative Credentials

At one point, Raisi is asked about concerts that were staunchly opposed by cultural hard-liners including his father-in-law, a Friday Prayers leader in Mashhad who has campaigned to ban concerts promoted by Rohani's Culture Ministry.

The stern-faced Raisi says he is a supporter of concerts that are "within norms," and downplays the significance of such concerns. "Are concerts really the country's [major] issue?" he asks, adding, "Won't the unemployed laugh at us?"

The cleric also speaks in favor of women's role in the society. "When we first got married, my wife wanted very much to study," Raisi says. "She asked me whether I'd let her study. I said 'definitely,'" he adds, noting that his wife has a doctorate in pedagogy.

The video shows images of Raisi's wife, Jamileh Alamolhoda, who teaches at Shahid Beheshti University, at public speaking events.

In addition to Rohani and Raisi, the remaining candidates in the May 19 vote are conservative former Culture Minister Mostafa Mirsalim and former Iranian National Olympic Committee head Mostafa Hashemitaba, a centrist.

Tehran Mayor and former prosecutor Qalibaf dropped out of the race on May 15, and reformist First Vice President Jahangiri, whose role appeared largely aimed at bolstering his incumbent boss's own bid, withdrew on May 16.

Around 1,600 would-be candidates had their applications rejected by the Guardians Council, the country's clerically dominated election supervisor.

If no candidate wins a majority of votes cast in the first round, a runoff between the two leading vote getters would follow on May 26.

Azam Taleghani (center) arrives at the Iranian Interior Ministry on April 14 to register as a candidate in the country's presidential election.

In registering as a contestant in Iran's upcoming presidential election, Azam Taleghani is challenging a hard-line electoral council whose members have rejected all female candidates in the past.

On April 14, a tiny, frail-looking woman wearing a chador and using a walker made her way slowly up the stairs of Iran's Interior Ministry in Tehran.

Seventy-three-year-old Azam Taleghani was there to register as a candidate in the May 19 vote for Iran's presidency.

She's hoping the third time is the charm.

In 1997, Taleghani, then a 53-year-old editor and women's rights advocate, made history by becoming the first woman to register as a candidate for president.

The move was aimed at highlighting state discrimination in the Islamic republic, where no woman has ever been allowed to run for president.

"It is the fate of half of Iran's population that is at stake," she said then.

Taleghani was not allowed to run in 1997 -- or in 2009, when she tried again. No reasons were given.

Twenty years after her initial effort, Taleghani is the most prominent of the 137 women who have registered as candidates for the vote. She knows she is likely to be rejected once again.

Direct Challenge

Taleghani's move is again a direct challenge to hard-liners in control of the Guardians Council, the unelected body that is in charge of vetting candidates for presidential and parliamentary votes. The council has in the past rejected all female candidates, based on a strict interpretation of the country's constitution.

"Women make up 50 percent of the Iranian population, so the country deserves at least one female candidate," Taleghani told the German news agency dpa on April 17.

But Taleghani, the daughter of prominent revolutionary cleric Mahmud Taleghani, said she would not be "broken" by another rejection by the Guardians Council and that she would continue to fight for women's rights.

Speaking to journalists while registering her candidacy on April 14, Taleghani said she is pressing for a ruling on whether the Iranian Constitution truly bars female candidates from running for president. The controversy centers around the interpretation of a single word.

​"I've come so that the issue with political 'rejal' can be resolved," she said.

Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution says the president should be elected from among the "religious and political rejal." Rejal, which comes from Arabic, means "personalities."

Azam Taleghani has long been one of Iran's most active women's rights campaigners. (file photo)
Azam Taleghani has long been one of Iran's most active women's rights campaigners. (file photo)

Guardians Council members have ruled in the past that the word rejal refers exclusively to men.

But a spokesman for the council, Abbasali Kadkhodayi, said in December that it had not yet come to a conclusion regarding the issue of rejal for the May 19 vote.

"'Political personalities' in Arabic is an idiom that refers to personalities with expertise and managerial [experience] who are politically savvy," Taleghani said in an April 15 interview with the New York-based Center for Human Rights.

Taleghani, secretary-general of the Islamic Revolution Women's Society, said the Guardians Council has never officially announced the reason that it prevents women from running for president.

"The Guardians Council has never said the reason for the disqualification of women is that they're women, even though this has been the understanding of the majority in society," she said. "For example, in my case, [the council] can resort to my critical political activities to disqualify me."

'Clear Message'

Many are praising Taleghani for trying to run for president again, including Iran's vice president for women's affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi. She said Taleghani's move sends a clear message to all, "particularly men and the authorities, that they should also see the competent women of the country."

Others are criticizing Iran's media for largely ignoring Taleghani's possible candidacy.

Journalist Mehdi Babaei noted that none of Iran's daily newspapers covered Taleghani's registration on their front pages.

Taleghani has for years been among Iran's most active campaigners for women's rights, challenging hard-line interpretations of Islamic laws that limit the rights of women.

She was one of the first women to become a deputy in the Iranian parliament following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

For years, she edited the magazine Payam Hajar, which questioned issues such as polygamy and published articles in favor of more rights for women, including equal rights to inheritance. The magazine was shut down by the authorities in 2000 as part of a crackdown on the liberal and reformist press.

Outspoken Critic

In 2003, she launched a solo protest outside Evin prison in Tehran to protest the treatment of political prisoners following the death in custody of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi.

She was also critical of the brutal state crackdown that followed the 2009 disputed reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

And she has publicly condemned the house arrest of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

The trio has been under arrest since 2011 for repeatedly challenging authorities over Ahmadinejad's reelection and for highlighting human rights abuses.

In a 2013 interview, the outspoken Taleghani said she believes that Iran's revolution has strayed from its original path to bring Iranians freedom and justice.

"The main principles of the revolution that were highlighted in slogans and were promised to people have not been achieved," she said.

And on April 18, Taleghani criticized some Iranian politicians for spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric, saying that they should "differentiate" between criticizing Israel's government and insulting Jews. She added that any denial of the Holocaust is the result of ignorance.

Shadi Sadr, a prominent women's rights activist who heads the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, says Taleghani has bravely used her position to repeatedly highlight the lack of political opportunities for women in Iran.

"She has been consistent and she has been also using her political background and that of her [father] to bring attention to this issue," Sadr told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

She said that this year's image of Taleghani registering while using a walker was particularly powerful.

"The photo reminded us that [Taleghani] is now elderly. She suffers from ailments, and she has been pushing for [women to be able to run] for years," Sadr said. "Yet the discrimination is still here."

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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