Iranians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new president knowing that for the first time in eight years the country will be led by someone other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a divisive leader who has pushed the country into isolation over its nuclear ambitions and to near economic ruin.
Whether Iran’s new leader – voters have the choice between six men – will herald a new era remains unclear. Some argue that a victory for the one remaining reformist candidate, Hassan Rouhani, could lead to real change. Others doubt that any of the candidates can alter the will of Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and that the election is nothing more than a sham.
Hours before the polls opened, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani handed a boon to Mr Rouhani by urging moderate Iranians, many of whom were angry at Mr Rafsanjani’s own exclusion, to vote. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who challenged Mr Ahmadinejad in the 2009 ballot, and another reform-leaning candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest for more than two years, but Mr Rafsanjani has gained influence among reformists after criticising the outcome of the last election.
Momentum appears to be gathering around Mr Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator. Thousands chanting, “long live reforms” welcomed him to the city of Mashhad in Iran’s north east for a rally on Wednesday.
The call to vote was also endorsed by Mr Khamenei, who warned that Iran’s enemies would take advantage of a low turnout: “It is possible that some do not want to support the Islamic Republic while seeking to support their own country. They should vote, too.” He added that a high turnout would “frustrate the enemy. When the enemy faces frustration, it will lose its efficiency.”
What the establishment in Iran will be hoping for above all is that the election result is respected, and unlike in 2009, when thousands took to the streets to denounce Mr Ahmadinejad’s return to office, the count is believed.
And it appears that the government is being pro-active about it this time around. Google reported earlier in the week that it had blocked an attempt to hack thousands of Iranian email accounts over the last three weeks.
“For almost three weeks, we have detected and disrupted multiple email-based phishing campaigns,” Eric Grosse, said Google’s vice-president for security engineering on Wednesday. “The timing and targeting of the campaigns suggest that the attacks are politically motivated.”
Given the lack of an impartial domestic media, and the unwillingness of the Iranian government to allow international reporters into the country, it has been difficult to establish who the favourites are. Analysts suggest that the hardline conservative, Saeed Jalili is likely to emerge in the lead after today’s vote – a second round is scheduled for 21 June in the likely event that there is not an overall winner. Mr Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, but some experts doubt that he is actually the front runner.
“Jalili is the more-of-the-same candidate, and has been portrayed in the media as being in the lead, but I’m not sure that’s true,” said Sir Richard Dalton, Britain’s ambassador to Iran between 2002 and 2006, and now associate fellow on the Middle East and North African programme at Chatham House.
“Who knows what’s happening in the provinces and in the villages – nobody has reported what these people thinking. I have a hunch that Jalili might not have made the case that he’s the person best qualified to pull Iran out of the present mess.”
The present mess is the country’s moribund economy, which has been stymied by crippling sanctions imposed by the West on Tehran as punishment for its nuclear ambitions, which the US, UK and countries like Israel say has the goal of building a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that its atomic programme is for peaceful purposes.
Israel has called on other Western countries to back up the sanctions with what it describes as a “credible military threat.” Certain Israeli ministers, including Yuval Steinitz, who is responsible for policy on Iran, have accused other countries of not doing enough to threaten the Iranian regime. At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that the outcome of the election is immaterial.
“As for these so-called elections taking place in Iran this week, well unfortunately, they will change nothing of significance. This regime will continue to be led by one man, one ruler, who will continue Iran's quest for nuclear weapons,” he said earlier this week.
Sir Richard Dalton disagrees with Mr Netanyahu’s view: “Simply to dismiss the Iranian president and his capacity to change policy is propaganda,” he says. Others agree that with a victory for Hassan Rouhani, or even if he makes it to the second round, change is possible.
Dr Hassan Hakimian, the director of the London Middle East Institute at SOAS in London says that even some of the conservative candidates could alter the course of Iran’s nuclear programme. “ What the recent TV debates between the candidates showed rather insightfully was that for the first time there was far from clear consensus on the nuclear issue – there were doubts even among the conservatives,” he said. Dr Hakimian argues that the current Mayor of Tehran, another hardliner, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf could be the man to watch.
Ali Akbar Velayati, the former foreign minister is also thought to stand a good chance, especially after he was endorsed by the Qom Seminary Scholars Association, an influential conservative religious group, last weekend. There were reports today that that Mr Velayati had withdrawn from the race, but they appear unsubstantiated.
Fact file: The race for president
* There are more than 50 million eligible voters among a population of about 79 million. About a third are under 30 – born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. About 60 per cent of the voters are in cities. Iranians abroad can vote in diplomatic compounds and other polling sites.
* The Guardian Council, controlled by the ruling clerics, vets all candidates for high office. 686 names were submitted and eight were allowed to run. A simple majority is needed for victory. Otherwise, a two-candidate run-off will be held next Friday. The winner will take office in late August.
* Municipal elections will also be taking place alongside the presidential vote for the first time. Nearly 350,000 candidates are registered for some 170 seats on councils.
* Turnout was reported at nearly 85 per cent in the disputed re-election of President Ahmadinejad in 2009. In 2005, turnout was reported as 63 per cent in the first round and 60 per cent in the second.
* The Interior Ministry oversees the election, and no outside election observers are permitted. Protesters in 2009 claimed that vote-rigging had denied reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi victory and handed victory to President Ahmadinejad. AP