Iran’s foreign policy is not expected to change whatever the result of today’s presidential elections, but the outcome is being closely monitored in the West in an attempt to gauge the Islamic Republic’s future direction.
Six candidates, all of them approved by the Council of Guardians — a panel appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that can bar candidates from standing — are vying for votes, with just one of them, the veteran cleric Hassan Rouhani, regarded as a “reformist”.
The election has been heavily controlled by the regime, with strict restrictions on public rallies and campaigning. Several relatively moderate candidates, chief among them former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have been disqualified from contending.
Following the widespread allegations of electoral fraud in the 2009 contest, when tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest against the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Supreme Leader is taking no risks this time. After falling out with Mr Ahmadinejad in recent years, he is interested in a president who will carry out his internal and economic policies.
While Mr Khamenei has not officially endorsed a candidate, he is thought to be backing the three prominent hardliners: Tehran mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf, a former general who is leading in the polls; Saeed Jalili, the head of the Supreme National Security Council and a familiar figure in the West due to his role as chief negotiator on the nuclear issues; and former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, currently a senior adviser to the supreme leader.
Another senior hardliner in the running is Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards.
The president must win at least 50 per cent of the vote and a run-off will take place between the two leading candidates in a week if no-one receives the necessary majority. Some dissident movements have urged Iranians to boycott the elections. However, reformist leaders such as Mr Rafsanjani and another former president, Mohammad Khatami, this week endorsed Mr Rouhani, who has called for an improvement in the civil rights situation in Iran and a different foreign policy.
Mr Rouhani can hardly be described as a liberal — he was one of the earliest followers of Iran’s previous leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, and a senior commander in the army during the Iran-Iraq war. As a previous chief negotiator, he steadfastly supported Iran’s right to nuclear development.
The polling on Iran is unreliable but many analysts believe that if there is a large turnout and the regime does not manipulate the count, the likely result will be a run-off between Mr Rouhani and one of the hardliners.