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The upcoming presidential election has already taken a dramatic turn, with both former president Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad-ally Mashaei entering the race over the weekend. Next they will be vetted by the regime’s Guardian Council, along with hundreds of lesser-known candidates. Gary Sick attempts to unpack the political calculus, suspecting the news may indicate waning political influence from Ayatollah Khamenei:

I thought that the Supreme Leader had decided unequivocally that there was to be no repetition of 2009, i.e. no credible individuals challenging the existing system and no mobs in the street with grievances after the vote. He had even talked about eliminating the presidency entirely, in favor of a parliamentary system. … [Mashaei and Rafsanjani entering the race] implies that Khamenei was either unable or unwilling to exercise control of the process or that his objectives were quite different from what we had understood from his observable actions and words. At a minimum, these candidates were willing to put Khamenei in an embarrassing position by publicly ignoring his well-known preferences, apparently without concern for the consequences.

Of course, it is still possible that the Guardian Council will simply disqualify all but the “safe” candidates, despite the past history of leaders like Rafsanjani and their intimate association with both the Leader and the revolution. That would confirm the cynical interpretation of Iran’s leadership after 2009 — that it realized the revolution was dead and there was no need to pretend that it was about anything other than raw power.

Meanwhile, the top reformist candidates from 2009, Mousavi and Karroubi, are still under house arrest and probably won’t play a direct role in this election. What’s left of the reformist camp?

Iran’s reformists have been politically crippled since the disputed 2009 Presidential election, with leading members in prison or under threat of detention, parties banned, and communications disrupted. Curbed in Parliament for almost a decade, they were split over participation in the 2012 Parliamentary elections and won only a small fraction of the vote.

Despite much speculation, a campaign by former President Mohammad Khatami, in office from 1997 to 2005, has not emerged. Khatami’s latest statements ruled out his involvement in the election. In Khatami’s absence, the leading reformist hopeful is Mohammad-Reza Aref, former first vice president under Khatami. Aref said on April 5 that reformists had “boosted their relations” with the Supreme Leader. Mostafa Kavakebian, who presents himself as a leader of the faction in Parliament but who is disliked by many reformists for failing to support the challenge after the disputed 2009 Presidential election, has also declared his intention to stand.

In the current circumstances of regime pressure, neither candidate nor the reformist movement is likely to be of any significance in the race.

So all eyes are on Rafsanjani:

With a month to go before polling day there is plenty of scope for further drama. Observers say one crucial question is whether Ahmadinejad’s controversial former aide – Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, who is loathed by Khamenei and his supporters – will be allowed to run. If he is disqualified some believe that the outgoing president, who remains in office, will turn openly on Khamenei – perhaps by spilling the beans on what really happened in 2009 or by refusing to rig the results again. It is also tantalisingly unclear whether Rafsanjani will be a serious candidate or intends rather to play the role of kingmaker.

Farideh Fardi predicts that Rafsanjani’s entry will unleash “an intense battle over the direction of the country”:

Unlike 2005, when Rafsanjani was challenged by both conservatives and reformists, this time he will be coming in with solid support from the reformists.

It is true that the reformists are also a herd of cats, but few doubt [reformer and former president] Khatami’s ability to convince the herd to rally behind Rafsanjani. In fact, most reformist and centrist candidates have already said that they will withdraw if Rafsanjani runs. The exception may be former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, but, without support from Rafsanjani or Khatami, he will not be a significant candidate anyway. In effect, if Rafsanjani is qualified by the Guardian Council and if he chooses not to back off in favor of another candidate, the conservatives will be facing a centrist/reformist consensus candidate who may even peel away some of their own, particularly the ones in the commercial sector and many in the clerical community in Qom and elsewhere. …

Rafsanjani’s entry into the fray with solid support from Khatami and his followers will force the conservatives not only to scramble for a consensus candidate, but also search for one who is relatively popular or at least better known.

Rodger Shanahan is waiting to see who makes it out of the vetting process:

The fact that these candidates have registered in such dramatic fashion makes for increased interest in the race, but there is no guarantee they will appear on the final ballot. The Supreme Leader wields significant influence over the candidacies, and the the ability of these two men to survive the vetting of the Council of Guardians is anything but assured. Only ten out of 800 hopefuls survived the Council’s deliberations in 2001; in 2005 it was six out of more than 1000.

The economy is the highest priority for most Iranians, and the public’s belief as to whether any of the final candidates can offer some relief in this area will ultimately determine the turnout. The backroom manoeuvrings and positioning of putative candidates is likely to dominate the period until the confirmation of candidates and the three-week election campaign.

At the same time, the Guardian Council may charge Ahmadinejad for illegally endorsing his protegé and chief of staff, Mashaei. For more on the race, head over to Enduring America’s election guide.

(Photo: Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani arrives to register his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election at the interior ministry in Tehran on May 11, 2013. By Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)