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Intrigue swirls as Iran prepares to choose next president

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, and chief advisor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei attend a news conference in Tehran last month.
(Mohammad Hassanzadeh / Associated Press)

TEHRAN — The reform movement that took to the streets to protest alleged vote-rigging in Iran’s last presidential election has been crushed. The supreme leader has made it clear that such behavior will not be tolerated this time.

But that doesn’t mean the maneuvering to replace Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in an election set for June 14 has been without intrigue.

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Ahmadinejad, who was reelected in the disputed 2009 balloting, is barred by law from seeking a third term and is publicly promoting a trusted aide to replace him. It is far from clear, however, whether the president’s preferred successor will even be allowed to run.

For much of the outside world, the incumbent remains the defiant face of the Iranian theocracy. At home, however, the clerical establishment that backed him four years ago has tired of what hard-liners regard as his divisiveness and lack of deference to the religious leadership.

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The election comes at a difficult moment for the Islamic Republic, which is facing the prospect of increased international isolation.

On Saturday, world powers and Iran again failed to break a deadlock in talks over Tehran’s nuclear program. Economic sanctions are biting, pushing up prices and spurring widespread discontent. Officials have clamped down on any signs of street protests.

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The Iranian leadership is also deeply concerned about the fate of its major Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, who appears to be slowly losing his grip on power to a rebellion now in its third year.

Ahmadinejad has come in for criticism as not only an inflammatory figure, but a profligate spender whose policies have damaged the economy. The blacksmith’s son has championed cash subsidies for the needy, winning considerable support from the poor and working class.

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Still, in the last two years of his presidency, Ahmadinejad has been transformed into a kind of renegade, flailing about in outrage as his ministers are impeached and his power curbed. Last year, the president’s top press aide was thrown into jail for disrespecting Islam and the supreme leader.

Though he has proved a wily and at times ruthless political player, the president’s legacy is plainly in peril. He and his disciples face being sidelined or shut out completely in the nation’s new political order.

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Enter Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the president’s chief advisor, top strategist and theoretician. He is also Ahmadinejad’s trusted in-law — the president’s son is married to Mashaei’s daughter.

Mashaei is widely regarded as Ahmadinejad’s handpicked prospective successor, though the aide has yet to declare his candidacy.

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Candidates must declare their intention to run by May 7. To get on the ballot, they must be approved by the Guardian Council, a hard-line panel close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Many observers say the council is unlikely to approve Mashaei, who is loathed in clerical circles as a leader of a “deviant current” challenging religious authority.

Undeterred, the president has been busily extolling Mashaei’s virtues in stump speeches across the country, often in emotional joint appearances. The two were photographed late last month crying together at an event for cancer-stricken children. The president also pinned a badge on Mashaei for his contributions to Iranian culture. The pair paid a visit to the battlefields of the brutal 1980s war with Iraq.

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The yes-to-more-of-the-same campaign has adopted a rousing and somewhat obscure slogan, “Long live spring!” By one interpretation, the motto seems to equate the Ahmadinejad years with a kind of “Arab Spring” sense of liberation, a parallel that critics say borders on the delusional.

If the clerical establishment is cool to Ahmadinejad, it is outright hostile to Mashaei.

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He has been pilloried as a closet monarchist who extols pre-Islamic Persian leaders such as Cyrus the Great and champions nationalist rhetoric while ignoring religious themes. Mashaei also has been publicly linked to the Bahai faith, a minority sect deemed hostile to the Islamic Revolution.

One leading hard-liner accused him in a recent newspaper editorial of serving the goals of the Central Intelligence Agency, practically labeling the man a traitor.

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There even are rumors of sorcery in the presidential palace. Some reports, noting Mashaei’s “mesmerizing eyes,” liken him to Rasputin, the Russian mystic who became a close advisor to the last czar.

Last year, when Mashaei proclaimed publicly that Iranian universities and seminaries were in a backward state, a popular religious balladeer, Saeed Haddadian, labeled the presidential aide a “mule” and a “donkey” and suggested Iran would be better off if he were dead and burning in the “depths of hell.”

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Iran’s so-called reformist camp, including remnants of the “green movement” that was crushed after the 2009 vote, also rejects Mashaei as a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing, espousing reform and spouting nationalist rhetoric in a bid to woo middle-class, anti-clerical voters while embodying his mentor’s repressive vision.

But there is no clear option for the reformists. There is no “change” candidate on the horizon.

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Former President Mohammad Khatami, nominal head of the reformist camp, could generate support if he decided to run. But enthusiasm for his prospective candidacy seems muted so far.

Meanwhile, a long slate of officially sanctioned prospective contenders has emerged, headed by Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister who is close to the supreme leader. Another likely aspirant is Tehran’s hard-line mayor, Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf.

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The supreme leader has made it clear that he wants a big electoral turnout, which he views as a message to the West, a demonstration of popular support for the system. But the prospect of an election is drawing little enthusiasm from a weary electorate.

With Ahmadinejad intent on protecting his legacy, analysts say they expect him to fight back if his protege is barred from running.

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“I think if he [Mashaei] is disqualified, he himself will do nothing, but President Ahmadinejad will make a scene,” said Nader Karimi Joni, an independent analyst. “However, it will be in vain.”

Others are hesitant to count out Ahmadinejad. The president has repeatedly hinted that he is in possession of evidence of massive corruption against government luminaries, a pointed warning to all, including the esteemed elders of the Guardian Council, that he will not go down alone.

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“It seems,” said Masoud Logman, an analyst, " that Ahmadinejad may know enough about corruption behind the scenes to convince the Guardian Council to qualify his fair-haired boy.”

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.


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