Presidential hopefuls wait for nod from Iran's clergy

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The Independent Online

A record number of candidates is seeking to replace Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in the election next month.

A record number of candidates is seeking to replace Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in the election next month.

More than 1,000 people have thrown their hats into the ring, including a former goalkeeper for the national team and a multilingual vagrant. The ages of the candidates who registered by a midnight deadline on Saturday ranged from a 16-year-old boy to an 86-year-old cleric.

The Guardian Council, a religious watchdog that barred more than half the reformist candidates from running for parliament last year, is expected to whittle the field down to a dozen.

The two front-runners for the 17 June poll to replace the outgoing moderate Mr Khatami are Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a mercurial former president, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a populist, hardline, former police chief.

Among the 1,010 people to step forward were 89 women, but the council has already said it will not allow them to run. The women had seized on an ambiguous clause in Iran's constitution which said "political men" could run for the presidency. The Arabic phrase can also mean "prominent figures".

The race has attracted dissidents, former politicians, tribal leaders and eccentrics. The more outlandish candidates include Nasser Hejazi, the former goalkeeper, who promised "to show all ill-doers the red card" if he became president, and a vagrant who said his strong Arabic, English and French, and his degrees in management and astronomy made him a suitable candidate.

Among the prominent dissidents to sign up was Ebrahim Yazdi, Iran's first foreign minister after the revolution, who heads the broadly secular, democratic National Front. Mr Yazdi lives under the threat of a prison sentence on charges of acting against national security and trying to bring down the theocratic system.

Mr Yazdi told The Independent: "On the previous record of the Guardian Council, I don't believe there can be a free and fair election, but I am doing my best to convince the authorities that they must change their behaviour."

The narrow favourite remains Mr Rafsanjani, who is standing on a moderate ticket of improving relations with the West and continuing some reforms but at a slower pace. He is most likely to face only staunch conservatives, although it is possible that Mostafa Moin, a reformist candidate and former minister, will be allowed to run.

The only new face among conservatives is Mr Qalibaf, who became popular in Tehran for modernising and depoliticising the police force and for a series of eye-catching initiatives to improve road safety. His macho style is a breath of fresh air in a campaign dominated by the old guard. But Iranian analysts question his moderate image, recalling human rights abuses and press closures that took place under his command.

The candidates

The front-runners

* MOHAMMED BAQER QALIBAF: Populist, hardline former police chief. Earnt popularity in Tehran for modernising and depoliticising the police and eye-catching initiatives on road safety.

* HASHEMI RAFSANJANI: A former president, he frequently moves between hardline and more moderate camps.

The hardliners

* MOSTAFA MOIN: Iran's largest reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, have chosen this former cabinet minister as its candidate. He is a close ally of the outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, a reformer

* EBRAHIM YAZDI: Iran's first foreign minister after the revolution, heads the secular, democratic National Front. He lives under threat of jail accused of acting against national security and trying to end the theocracy.

The eccentrics

* NASSER HEJAZI: Former goalkeeper of the national soccer team with no political background. Promised "to show all ill-doers the red card" if he became president.

* Candidates include a boy of 16 and a cleric aged 86. A vagrant said his Arabic, English and French, and his degrees in management and astronomy made him a suitable candidate.

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