On the eve of the country’s 11th presidential elections, the leading candidates battle it out on the campaign trail and hope for a high turnout to make up for the legitimacy deficit the system suffered in 2009. By ATUL ANEJA

As on previous occasions, sparks have begun to fly ahead of the 11th Iranian presidential elections on June 14, signalling an engaging contest. The campaign period began on a controversial note when Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets the aspirants to the presidency and is known for its loyalty to the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, barred the veteran politician, senior cleric and two-time President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from contesting. Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a protege of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was also shut out from the fray.

Rafsanjani threw in the towel easily, but Mashaei decided on a low-intensity combat. Ahmadinejad took up Mashaei’s cause personally with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, leading to speculation on a wider clash between the President and institutions loyal to the Ayatollah. Ahmadinejad also orchestrated his appeal to the Supreme Leader with studied deliberation. “I ask those who support me and Mr Mashaei to be patient because there will be no problem because of the presence of the Leader [of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei],” he said during an interaction with the media. He believed that “the issue will, God willing, be resolved”.

The President’s defiance of the Guardian Council opened the floodgates of speculation on whether Ahmadinejad had a Plan B in case Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected his plea. Ahmadinejad’s camp declared that it would pursue its cause only through available legal means, and Mashaei was careful to underscore that his protestation was within the ambit of law.

Mashaei’s office said it was justified in seeking Ahmadinejad’s intervention given the fact that the President was the “executor of the Constitution”. A statement issued on behalf of Mashaei said the presidential hopeful would use “the full legal capacity of the country” to persuade the Guardian Council to reverse its decision. It also urged Mashaei’s supporters to organise their activities “based on legal methods in order to dishearten the enemies of the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian nation”.

While the controversy over the Guardian Council’s decision grabbed the headlines, there was significant activity behind the scenes to beef up the candidacy of Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, for the presidency. Jalili began his campaign on a solid footing as Kamran Baqeri Lankarani, another candidate, dropped out of the race and pledged his support to Jalili. The step is significant as Lankarani is a protege of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a hard-line and influential cleric who believes that Iran has strayed from the values of the 1979 revolution. Iran’s Principlist Perseverance Front had earlier chosen Lankarani as the frontrunner in the election.

Jalili, who was also Iran’s chief negotiator in the nuclear negotiations with the West, has projected himself as the ultimate defender of the revolution—his service to the cause of revolutionary Iran underscored by his active participation in the Karbala-5 offensive, one of the most decisive battles of the Iran-Iraq war, where he is said to have lost his lower right leg.

Jalili’s supporters have used social media to good effect to project him as a war hero, with pictures showing a bearded young man in uniform, confirming his battle-hardened credentials. His media campaigners have also paraded his piety and simplicity, as evidenced by the use of a self-driven small car, the KIA Pride. These images contrast, for instance, with the lavish lifestyle of Rafsanjani, who prefers luxurious travel in his shiny blue Mercedes.

Jalili was only 14 when the late Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was toppled and he exudes confidence in Iran’s ability to triumph in the political tug of war with the United States. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, he emphasised that Iran was winning its strategic contest with the U.S., notwithstanding the crippling sanctions and concerted Western attempts to isolate Tehran.

On the campaign trail in the holy city of Qom, Jalili lauded Iran’s ability to produce, in the teeth of Western opposition, 20 per cent enriched uranium to manufacture nuclear medicine. He pointed out that Iran’s technological success had fundamentally changed the contours of the nuclear stand-off with the West. “Today, the nuclear equation has changed and the enemies want Iran to only halt 20 per cent uranium enrichment,” he said.

Improving the economy Unlike Jalili’s advocacy of resistance and technological advancement as the recipe for advancing the revolution, other candidates, including those belonging to the conservative camp, have focussed on improving the economy, in the hope that the emphasis on bread-and-butter issues will bring in better electoral rewards.

Tehran’s Mayor and a presidential candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, has promised to turn the economy around in two years, while Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, a former Speaker of the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament) has railed against nepotism and corruption that, in his view, had undermined the economy.

Yet, none of the candidates has presented either a detailed programme or a clear road map to bring down the country’s stubborn 13 per cent unemployment rate and a runaway inflation of 32 per cent.

Though hardly a liberal, Rafsanjani’s exit has meant that the votes of the reformist camp are up for grabs. Given his heavyweight credentials, the reformists had decided to back Rafsanjani, a pragmatist, as he had good chances of taking on the conservatives. Hasan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator and a centrist candidate, could now absorb some of the reformist votes, but his lack of charisma and untested political skills may work against him.

The Guardian Council has allowed Mohammad Reza Aref, a first Vice-President under former President Mohammad Khatami to represent the reformist camp. In his television appearance, Aref’s views about reforming the system and reworking institutions within Iran’s constitutional framework made an impact. The former Vice-President slammed the conservatives, who call themselves Principlists, for creating an intolerant “security atmosphere” after the contentious 2009 elections, when Ahmadinejad was declared the winner for a second term amid a spate of protests. He said the universities suffered from this oppressive overhang, which was not compatible with the spirit of the law, the spirit of the revolution, or with the ideas of (the late) Imam (Khomeini) or the Leader (of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khamenei).

The former Vice-President demanded the mainstreaming of eminent people such as Khatami and Rafsanjani. “Mr [Ali Akbar] Hashemi [Rafsanjani] is among the main pillars of the Islamic Revolution and has very good relations with other countries. But how much have we taken advantage of him? We must take advantage of Mr [Mohammad] Khatami—as the one who came up with the idea of dialogue among civilisations, which was also approved at the United Nations with a unanimous vote,” he observed.

Among other candidates is Ali Akbar Velayati, veteran diplomat and a long-time Foreign Minister. As adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, he is perceived as a confidant of the Supreme Leader. But his ability to connect with Iran’s youth and his mass appeal are yet to be tested. In one of his televised campaign addresses, Velayati focussed on alleviating the adverse effects of sanctions by pursuing a “successful” foreign policy. He also proposed working for a visa-free regime with more than 40 countries in order to help the Iranian people connect with the rest of the globe. Despite the problems generated by the sanctions, Velayati also held “incorrect measures” adopted by the officialdom responsible for the country’s economic slide.

Iran’s establishment is hoping for a high turnout to give their system greater legitimacy, which had taken a hit after the 2009 presidential elections. The upcoming elections have also become another occasion for the commencement of a slanging match between Iran and the U.S.

Anticipating a high turnout, Iran’s Supreme Leader told students during a recent address at the Imam Hussein University that U.S. officials would once again fail in their attempts to discourage people from participating in the upcoming elections. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had, during his recent visit to Israel, criticised Iran for not holding “free, fair and accessible, accountable elections”.

The Supreme Leader said people should choose a candidate who can “solve the problems [of the country] and resist against enemies and can turn the Islamic Republic into a role model for the oppressed of the world”. He slammed the U.S. for running the Guantanamo prison, bombing villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan with drones and providing unconditional support to Israel.