The success of reformist leaders in forging an alliance around just one candidate ahead of Iran’s presidential election Friday has increased the pressure on a divided conservative camp, with influential figures calling on hopefuls to abandon the race to present a united front.
Mohammad-Reza Aref reluctantly dropped out of the race late Monday after a deal brokered by former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and aimed at uniting reformist voters around just one candidate.
The maneuver has boosted the position of candidate Hassan Rouhani, who both Khatami and Rafsanjani are now publicly backing .
Meanwhile, three other leading conservatives, also known as Principlists, remained in the race: nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, adviser to the supreme leader Ali Akbar Velayati and former Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf.
Some of the country’s most influential religious leaders foresaw the potential pitfalls of a split vote and sought to prevent too many conservatives from entering the race before it began, Seyyed Reza Taghavi, the head of the Policymaking Council for Friday Imams, told The Daily Star in an interview at his office in Tehran Tuesday.
Taghavi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s hand-picked leader of the council, is also a member of both the powerful Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, a body that decides the ranking of religious leaders in the country, and the Combatant Clergy Association, a pragmatic conservative group.
Prior to the commencement of the presidential campaign season, members of the two organizations made contact with would-be candidates in a bid to dissuade them from registering their candidacy with the Guardian Council, a government body that vets all potential candidates in elections , Taghavi said.
“We tried so hard to unite these conservative parties. We did not support any one candidate; we simply tried to promote unity between the different groups. We tried to prevent a dispersion of the votes among these candidates,” he said.
“More than 60 percent, we were successful in this way,” he said. “Most of the candidates who wanted to take part in the elections changed their minds and did not register to enter the race.”
Though he regretted that some other candidates did not heed the scholars’ advice, Taghavi said their decision to compete in the polls had injected excitement into the election.
“They wanted to take part in the competition and this creates more enthusiasm in the society. We did not impose our ideas on them. We try to let the political process evolve in a natural way,” he said.
But recent developments suggest such behind-the-scenes counsel and coalition building could be ongoing.
Conservative former Speaker of Parliament Gholam Ali Haddad Adel pulled out of the race Monday .
In announcing his withdrawal, Adel said: “I quit the Islamic Republic of Iran’s presidential election race to contribute my share to the victory of the Principlists in this election.”
After the withdrawal of reformist candidate Aref Monday, a source said late Tuesday Velayati would also quit.
The Daily Star was unable to confirm the report by press time, and no official announcement had yet been posted on Velayati’s website.
Political analyst Seyyed Mohammad Marandi said Aref’s withdrawal would certainly prove to be a boost for Rouhani’s candidacy. “This development does benefit Rouhani,” he said. “The Principlists’ vote is divided and this will probably help Rouhani get into the second round.”
Marandi believes that among the conservative candidates, Qalibaf is likely to garner the most support.
“According to polls, he is consistently at the top so he is most certainly likely to get into the second round,” Marandi said.
But Reza Kouhi, a political analyst with a private research institute in Tehran, argues that Jalili remains in a better position going into the vote.
Kouhi said Jalili has already won the public backing of several prominent leaders and groups that helped secure nearly 6 million votes for Ahmadinejad in the first round of the 2005 election, including Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi, Tehran’s Hezbollah and Ansar Hezbollah.
“In this election, the same people who voted in the first round of that election for Ahmadinejad will choose Jalili Friday,” he said.
Such an outcome would ensure a runoff, he said, adding that those who supported Qalibaf, Velayati and centrist candidate Mohsen Rezaei in the first round would likely vote for Jalili in the second.
“Jalili is likely to win, but regardless, we will see a close competition between Jalili and Rouhani in both the first and second rounds,” he said.
By Kristin Dailey