Tehran - Iranian authorities opened the registration process on Tuesday for candidates in next month's presidential election that will pick a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and offer a critical test for reformists battered after years of crackdowns.
The leaders of the reform movement four years ago are now under house arrests and liberal groups have faced relentless pressures since major unrest to protest Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. It appears unlikely that prominent pro-reform figures, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, will seek a spot on the 14 June ballot.
That leaves opposition and liberal groups the option of boycotting the election or falling behind one of the candidates cleared by the ruling clerics, who will vet all hopefuls who submit their names during the five-day registration period. Only a handful of candidates are expected to be approved when the final list is unveiled later this month by the Guardian Council, the group that supervises the election.
The slate is almost certainly to be heavily stacked with candidates considered loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been angered by challenges to his authority by Ahmadinejad and the president's allies. Among the presumed front-runners is senior Khamenei adviser Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and former nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani, who formally registered his candidacy in the first hours as the process got underway on Tuesday.
The ruling clerics seek an end to the internal political battles opened by Ahmadinejad and more co-ordination with the presidency in strategies on nuclear talks and efforts to confront international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme. All key policies are made by the theocracy and its inner circle, including the powerful Revolutionary Guard. But the president is the international face of the country and is responsible for increasingly important sectors, such as the nation's stumbling economy.
Most of the main candidates have vowed to shun Ahmadinejad's bombastic style and seek to reduce tensions with the West and its allies. But all strongly support Iran's ability to maintain a full-scale nuclear programme, including uranium enrichment. The US and others fear Iran could eventually develop nuclear weapons, but Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
Another major subplot in the election is the fate of Ahmadinejad's top political protégé, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is expected to seek a spot on the ballot. Ahmadinejad has endorsed Mashaei as his personally groomed heir. But Mashaei's reputation has faced severe blows in the backlash over Ahmadinejad's failed attempts to encroach on the Khamenei's powers.
Mashaei has been denounced as part of a "deviant current" opposing Islamic rule and some critics even claimed he used magic spells to cloud Ahmadinejad's mind. It's possible Mashaei would be rejected for the ballot and force Ahmadinejad — who still has considerable support around the country — to align himself with another candidate.
In a live TV broadcast, Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar urged presidential hopefuls to register quickly and not wait until the last moment. Leading candidates usually wait until the last days of the registration period, which ends on Saturday evening.
Ahmadinejad is barred by law from seeking a third term due to term limits under Iran's constitution.
Some presidential hopefuls, mostly little known, rushed to register on Tuesday morning. Among them were former housing minister Mohammad Saeedikia, former health minister Kamran Bagheri Lankarani and former Vice President Sadegh Vaezadeh.
Reformists in Iran remain in disarray after the relentless crackdowns in the wake of the 2009 protests over claims their victory was stolen by vote rigging. In recent weeks, controls and blocks on Internet traffic appeared to be boosted in possible attempts to limit opposition voices during the election period.
Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi have been under house arrest since early 2011. Top figures such as Khatami and another former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are not expected to seek comeback bids.
The main liberal-leaning candidate considered by the Guardian Council could be former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, who served in Khatami's administration.