TEHRAN — Conservatives aligned with Iran’s supreme leader may enjoy his support, but their inability to rally behind a single candidate could hurt their chances of replacing outgoing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.
With less than a month remaining before the June 14 election, no clear front-runner has emerged among a bloc of nearly a dozen conservative candidates, causing concern among allies who fear a loss of the power they have amassed over the years to rivals they say will move Iran away from clerical rule.
The final list of candidates will not be known until May 23 after the Guardian Council, a powerful body tasked with vetting candidates, completes its process. But the aspirants include at least two prominent hopefuls — the mayor of Tehran and a longtime foreign minister — from among a conservative grouping that had pledged to join forces around a single standard-bearer. They also include a third prominent conservative, Saeed Jalili, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator.
The group is known as principlists, a reference to their support for the founding principles of Iran as an Islamic republic. Despite often having tacit support from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, traditional conservatives have not fared well in recent presidential elections, and they again face challenges from potential candidates with political beliefs they say are far removed from their own.
Among the conservatives, only the Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, has demonstrated an ability to attract popular support. Ghalibaf has been a proponent of information technology and environmental initiatives in the sprawling capital. But even he faces challenges from conservatives who believe that, like Ahmadinejad, he might abandon revolutionary ideals to improve ties with the West.
Another candidate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, who served from 1981 to 1997, is now a senior adviser to the supreme leader. While Velayati is widely thought to be Khamenei’s choice, his popularity is unlikely to match Ghalibaf’s.
At the same time, hard-line conservatives now seem to favor Jalili, the nuclear negotiator, who has received significant attention since Saturday, when he registered to become a candidate.
The one issue that has united the conservatives is their opposition to the candidacies of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad’s top aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but they have been unable to repair divisions in their own ranks.
“The reality is that several attempts to implement a process for reaching a consensus candidate have so far failed,” said Farideh Farhi, an Iran analyst in the political science faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Some conservatives could still withdraw and throw their support to others, and it is possible that some candidates might not win approval from the Guardian Council, which is expected to announce some preliminary decisions as early as Thursday.
But experts say strong differences have emerged among the group, particularly as some try to distance themselves from the policies of Ahmadinejad, who was reelected in 2009 as the choice of most conservatives but lost favor as a rift emerged between him and Khamenei.
Other observers say conservatives are seeking the most viable candidate to end the woes caused by mismanagement of the economy and sanctions on Iran’s vast oil and gas sector. “There is a strong undercurrent pushing for an experienced manager with a good relationship with the supreme leader to come in and fix things,” said Mohammad-Ali Shabani, a London-based Iran analyst.
Along with concern about diluting their base of support, some Iranian conservatives say they would be wary of any rush to consensus.
“The strategic mistake of the conservatives will be if they choose one weak candidate in the end,” Seyed Emad Hosseini, a conservative analyst and former lawmaker, said in an interview this week with a news Web site.