TEHRAN — Eight competitors in the race to replace Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began their three-week-long campaign sprint over the weekend, holding almost daily events and dominating the country’s radio and television airwaves.
Although many here think there is little that differentiates the candidates — aside from the details of their pledges to improve on what they say is Ahmadinejad’s mismanagement — visits to campaign rallies and candidate headquarters reveal the many facets of Iranian politics and society.
Compared with the colorful scenes ahead of the 2009 election, this year’s presidential campaign is subdued.
With printers and publishers under an advisory to conserve paper products, which have become much more expensive because of economic sanctions, the capital is mostly void of the campaign posters and discarded fliers and brochures that accompanied previous Iranian elections.
Gone, too, are the one-on-one live televised debates that many analysts thought led to 2009’s lively campaign atmosphere and the unrest after that election. Instead, debates use a panel format similar to that in the United States.
Since the disqualification of the highest-profile candidates — former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei — the man getting the most attention is Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. His rally Friday in a central Tehran stadium provided the first public glimpse of a man most Iranians know little about.
Outside the arena, a young man, holding a cardboard box covered in pictures of Jalili, asked for campaign donations and suggestions. Other volunteers handed out fliers explaining why people should vote for him.
About 3,000 supporters — the biggest crowd seen at a campaign event this year — filled the stadium, fanning themselves under a banner that read, “Resistance is the password to progress.”
The crowd represented the hopes and ideals of the 1979 Islamic revolution, which still resonates with Iranians who fought or lost loved ones in the eight-year war with Iraq that followed in the 1980s. Jalili lost part of his leg in that conflict, and many injured veterans of the war were in the audience.
“Anyone who becomes the next Iranian president must continue on the path of the Islamic revolution and must use all available resources to achieve the objectives of the revolution,” Jalili told the crowd, possibly the largest audience he has ever addressed.
“We’re engaged in a real war with America in the form of the sanctions we’re under, and Jalili understands this,” said Hassan Roozitalab, an online editor who brought his infant daughter to the rally. “Our economic problems will be solved domestically, and to do that, we need to use the potential we have in this country.”
Jalili’s message of economic resistance and Islamic purity does not appeal to large segments of urban Iran, however.
“I’m really worried about what will happen if people like these get more power. We thought those days were over,” said a female passerby who would not give her name. Like many Iranians interviewed, she said she did not plan to vote.
At a mosque in the northeastern corner of Tehran, about 200 mostly middle-aged, middle-class men gathered on Saturday for evening prayers and to hear Ali Akbar Velayati, a longtime foreign minister and a physician trained at Johns Hopkins University, offer his plan for his presidency.
Velayati is touting his foreign policy experience as the reason Iranians should vote for him. His and Jalili’s supporters appeared to come from similar social backgrounds.
At both campaign events, young men in their 20s — born more than a decade after the 1979 revolution that led to the formation of the Islamic republic — circulated, telling female attendees to mind their head coverings and to dress modestly.
Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric among the eight candidates and a former lead nuclear negotiator, is the one touting the most liberal-minded agenda.
His speeches have focused on repairing Iran’s international image and addressing the concerns of the country’s ethnic and tribal minorities as well as those of non-Muslims and women, themes that have rarely entered the Iranian political discourse in recent years.
On Sunday, Rouhani met with a contingent of Azeri Turks, Iran’s largest minority group.
“I want to see what Rouhani’s stances are, to see if he’s really with the reformists or not. If he is, I’ll vote for him,” said Romina, a 27-year-old Azeri office worker who did not want her last name published for fear of government reprisals.
With fluent English speakers on staff available to address media requests, Rouhani’s campaign team is also more sophisticated than those of his competitors.