TEHRAN, Iran -With a week to go before presidential elections, a strategist for Iran”s hard-line politicians is advising several conservatives to drop out and unite behind a single candidate or face losing to the reformers.
But there is little sign any will pull out. That leaves them trailing and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani — who advocates improving relations with Washington — as the apparent front-runner.
Rafsanjani is presenting himself as the only candidate the world can rely on in negotiations over Iran”s nuclear program, which the Bush administration alleges is a front for developing atomic weapons.
He is running under the slogan "Let”s work together." It is interpreted as a conciliatory gesture, because he has moved frequently between the hard-line and moderate camps in a country where conservative clerics have maintained control despite strong electoral showings by reformers.
The June 17 election will choose a successor to outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, who came to power in 1997 but whose attempts to bring reforms were thwarted by hard-line clerics loyal to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khatami is barred by law from seeking a third term.
If no candidate gains 50 percent on June 17, a run-off between the two top vote-getters will be held a week later.
Hossein Shariatmadari, a close aide to Khamenei, has said publicly that the hard-line candidates have no chance of winning unless some withdraw.
"Should the four principal candidates withdraw in favor of one of them, their victory will be definite," said Shariatmadari, considered a strategist for the hard-line camp, in an editorial in his daily newspaper, Kayhan.
The hard-liners — former national police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf; former radio and television chief Ali Larijani; Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezaei — are all former military commanders.
Aides to Qalibaf and Larijani said neither planned to withdraw, and there were no signs the other two were considering stepping aside, either.
Another conservative candidate, parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karroubi, has some support among reform-minded voters who remain loyal to the clerical establishment. This contingent includes one-time hard-line clerics who have moderated their views.
The ruling clerics had hoped the June vote would consolidate their power. The Guardian Council, a watchdog for Iran”s theocratic constitution, initially barred reformers from running. But Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, forced the council to reverse that decision.
He apparently was worried that low turnout could undermine the ruling Islamic establishment and weaken its position in crucial negotiations with Europeans over Iran”s nuclear program.
With the reformist movement severely weakened, Rafsanjani is seen as the most credible force to stop hard-liners from seizing the presidency.
Iran”s most prominent reformist candidate, former culture and higher education minister Mostafa Moin, faces a potentially insurmountable hurdle in the expected low turnout of only around half of Iran”s 48 million eligible voters.
His main supporters are Iran”s young and women — a problem because part of Iran”s student movement has decided to boycott the polls. Moin has responded by warning that a boycott could pave the way for a totalitarian state and just help hard-liners consolidate their grip.
He has focused his campaign on persuading disillusioned young people — who make up the majority of Iran”s 70 million population — to go to the polls. Many have said they will stay away because they believe democratic reforms are impossible within the ruling Islamic establishment.
"Voting in the election will only give legitimacy to the ruling clerics," said student leader Abdollah Momeni.