TEHRAN, Iran — Two powerful and divisive figures registered Saturday to run in Iran’s presidential election, jolting the political landscape ahead of next month’s vote to pick a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who wields enormous influence, and Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, an ally of Ahmadinejad, submitted their official paperwork minutes before Saturday’s deadline. Each has a good shot at winning the vote, raising a tough challenge to conservative candidates loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The race to choose a successor to Ahmadinejad, who under term-limit rules cannot seek a third mandate, culminates with the June 14 vote. The campaign has begun to focus on the departing president’s legacy and combative style, which had bolstered his stature among supporters but alarmed critics.
Rafsanjani now stands as the main hope for reformists, who were crushed and left leaderless after a government crackdown on mass street protests after Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 election victory.
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A win by Rasfanjani, who is seen as a centrist candidate and served as president from 1989-1997, could open the way for an easing of tensions with the outside world and distance Iran from Ahmadinejad’s bombastic style and the hard-line policies of the Islamic Republic’s conservative camp.
Mashaei, on the other hand, would mark a continuation of Ahmadinejad-era policies.
“I’ll consider it my obligation to continue the path of Ahmadinejad’s government,” Mashaei said after registering Saturday.
Mashaei has long been Ahmadinejad’s confidant, and the president’s son is married to Mashaei’s daughter. State TV showed a smiling Ahmadinejad accompanying Mashaei as he submitted his papers Saturday, and the president raised his aide’s hand in a gesture of support.
“Mashaei means Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei,” the official IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
All candidates must be approved by the election overseers, known as the Guardian Council, to make it onto the ballot, and Mashaei’s role in a messy power struggle in recent years between Ahmadinejad and the Islamic establishment could lead to him being knocked out of the race.
Hard-liners accuse Mashaei of being the leader of a “deviant current” that seeks to undermine Islamic rule and compromise the Islamic system. Some critics have claimed he conjured black-magic spells to fog Ahmadinejad’s mind.
All key policies in Iran are made by the clerics and their inner circle, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. But the president is the international face of the country, and is responsible for increasingly important areas such as the nation’s stumbling economy.