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Politics, Iranian style, is about to kick off in earnest. In the coming days, nearly 700 presidential hopefuls in Iran will be winnowed down to just a handful. And the shape of the race has been altered by two last-minute contenders: A former president once dismissed as a has-been and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this story on what's to come in Iran.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: It might be a stretch to call this year's campaign a free-for-all. But analysts say there's a clear sense that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has thus far failed to unify the political elite behind a single establishment candidate. Analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, says that was underscored over the weekend when former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose political obituary was being written just a few years ago, jumped into the race literally as the deadline for registration closed.
MOHAMMAD ALI SHABANI: I think it's huge not just because of his own candidacy but also the way in which he changes the calculations of all of the other candidates. So that's - the impact is huge.
KENYON: Now, Rafsanjani, who fell out of favor in 2009 when he supported some of the aims of the now-crushed green movement, has Iran's political classes abuzz with speculation. One popular scenario has the supreme leader cutting a deal to give Rafsanjani's allies key posts in the next government if Rafsanjani himself drops out of the race. Shabani says this school of thought argues that Rafsanjani, at age 78, may be willing to accept behind-the-scenes power instead of another term as president.
SHABANI: This shouldn't come as a surprise because Rafsanjani has repeatedly talked about a need for setting up a national unity government for the past couple of years. So, I mean, Rafsanjani's and the system's best interests will be served if he acts as kingmaker rather than king.
KENYON: Such a scenario remains speculative, but it has the added appeal of thwarting the ambitions of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who's defying Khamenei by campaigning hard for his chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. Ahmadinejad's star hit rock bottom with conservatives earlier this year when he launched embarrassing public accusations of corruption against the political elite. Analysts say despite their differences, Khamenei and Rafsanjani agree on the need to freeze Ahmadinejad's camp out of power. As to who the compromise candidate might be, some are leaning toward another late entrant into the race, chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
A number of candidates wasted no time in ripping Ahmadinejad's economic policies, which are now being blamed just as much as international sanctions for Iran's fiscal woes. Former Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Gharazi didn't even mention sanctions in a recent interview with Iran's Press TV.
MOHAMMAD GHARAZI: (Through translator) Previous administrations have, of course, tried their best, but still high inflation rate is the most important problem that we are facing. The government should not spend more than it earns.
KENYON: The fate of Gharazi and the other candidates now rests with the powerful Guardian Council. Council Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei says the council is already vetting the candidates for competence and ideological purity.
ABBAS ALI KADKHODAEI: (Through translator) The Guardian Council is in charge of deciding which of these people are eligible to become Iran's next president based on Article 115 of the constitution aside from monitoring the election process and confirming the results.
KENYON: The vetting process is likely to last 10 days, launching the short but intense final campaign push to the June 14th ballot. Analyst Farideh Farhi at the University of Hawaii says despite fears that Ahmadinejad has more disruptive tricks up his sleeve should his candidate Mashaie be disqualified, in fact, his ability to influence events is already evaporating.
FARIDEH FARHI: I would say that Ahmadinejad will not go down easily. But all in all, the Ahmadinejad era is over. And no matter what he does, he will not be able to impact the general direction of the country.
KENYON: Among the many uncertainties regarding Iran's political future is the possibility that no candidate will gain 50 percent of the vote in the first round, requiring a runoff. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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