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With Friday’s “selection” fast approaching, Barbara Slavin points out that, “if Iranian elections are supposed to follow a script, [some] of the actors seem to have forgotten their lines.” In particular she notes how much sanctions-related criticism has been directed at Saeed Jalili, the country’s top nuclear negotiator and the candidate widely considered to be Khamenei’s first choice for the presidency:

[During the third debate, former foreign minister Ali Akbar] Velayati and former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani both implied that they would have done far better that had they been in charge [of the nuclear negotiations with the West]. Rowhani, who negotiated with the Europeans from 2003-2005 when he held Jalili’s post, has repeatedly noted that during his tenure, Iran continued to make progress on its nuclear program without being referred to the Security Council and hit with heavy sanctions.

The sanctions have seriously impacted the Iranian economy — the major topic of the presidential campaign. Thus, even if Khamenei had wished to prevent discussion of the nuclear question, he would have had a hard time succeeding.

Slavin believes that while both Rowhani and Velayati may realize they can’t win, they are nonetheless using the freedoms allowed them by their candidacies to criticize the regime. The reformist Rowhani, for instance, has suggested that Iran’s nuclear program should not be a higher priority than the country’s economy, and he has spoken out on other issues as well:

“We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives during the past eight years,” Rowhani said during a speech on 1 June in the north Tehran neighbourhood of Jamaran. “You, dear students and hero youth, are the ones who have come to restore the national economy and improve the people’s living standards. We will bring back our country to the dignity of the past.” … Tuesday night, in a 30-minute documentary more biography than manifesto, he verged on crossing Iran’s media “red lines” as he criticised the harassment of Iranian civilians by “plainclothes people” – a clear reference to the Basij militia – and the country’s “securitised atmosphere”. He also poured scorn on Ahmadinejad’s record, though that is by now a million miles from any red line. Elsewhere in the documentary, Rowhani, who is campaigning on the slogan Government of Proficiency and Hope, talked of “interaction with the world” and gender equality. “In my government, differences between women and men won’t be tolerated,” he said. …

[However, t]hough Rowhani may stimulate the reformists to back him and mobilise disenfranchised voters to the polling venues, he is no firebrand reformer. He has so far cleverly toed the line between appeasing the establishment by showing due deference to Khamenei and exhibiting his revolutionary and Islamic bona fides.

But that’s to be expected from most anyone trying to navigate the regime’s system. It also seems like Rowhani’s campaign may be working from Mousavi’s 2009 playbook:

Supporters entering [a Rowhani campaign rally on] June 8 were handed purple wrist ribbons, the color he’s using on campaign posters. The move may be inspired by Mir Hossein Mousavi’s 2009 campaign, which became so associated with the color green that the opposition born out of post-vote protests became known as the Green Movement. …

Most people at [Rowhani’s] rally were middle-class Iranians in their early 20s, and some also wore purple headscarves, headbands or T-shirts. A spillover crowd lined the street outside. Hundreds of policemen and dozens of police vans were stationed outside the stadium to prevent the possibility of spontaneous protests.

Indeed at a few rallies, Rowhani supporters broke into chants calling for the release of Mousavi and Karroubi, leading to some arrests as well as rumors, so far unfounded, that the Guardian Council would reevaluate and then bar Rowhani from the race. While most analysts believe Rowhani doesn’t have a chance, there are at least some signs that his rhetoric is resonating with voters:

News websites in the country run their own informal polls, and these have shown a strong lead for moderate reformer Hassan Rowhani after three rounds of televised presidential debates. With the conservative camp split among three candidates, [and 50.1% of the vote required for a definitive victory,] this could mean Mr. Rowhani forcing a run-off vote. Nonetheless, the widespread belief that the 2009 election was rigged has prompted caution among most Iranian observers about whether any of the anti-establishment candidates would be allowed to make it through to the run-off, let alone win.

The regime is worried about low turnout as well:

[Authorities] have taken the unprecedented step of scheduling local council elections for the same day, along with by-elections for the Assembly of Experts – a group of clerics that appoints the supreme leader. The authorities hope that combining the three elections will boost the vote, especially as official statistics show that turnout in local elections is often relatively high.

Meanwhile, Max Fisher scans a recent (US) poll conducted among voters in Iran which shows technocratic Tehran mayor Mohammad Ghalibaf in the lead instead:

The poll has 39 percent of decided voters saying they support Ghalibaf, a remarkable lead over all the other candidates. However, the poll also reports that 57 percent of voters are undecided, meaning that presently undecided voters could easily erase his lead. It’s plausible, though, that many of the undecided voters are disillusioned with Iranian politics – an increasingly common sentiment after the protests and crackdowns that followed the disputed 2009 election – and thus not likely to turn out on election day. … The polls look bad for Saeed Jalili, the country’s nuclear negotiator and a fervent nationalist who appears to be a favorite of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the clerical establishment. He received 13.9 percent support from decided voters in the poll, placing him in a distant third.

Jason Rezaian profiles the supposed frontrunner:

Ghalibaf is viewed warily by some of Iran’s political conservatives and clerical rulers, who view him as being more focused on pragmatism than revolutionary ideals. But there are few signs that he would make bold diplomatic shifts or decisions about Iran’s nuclear program if elected. …

Ghalibaf is not just a wonk. With many years in law enforcement, he also has a history of doing what he deems necessary to maintain order, and critics say that has included the use of excessive violence in suppressing the biggest protests of the Islamic Republic’s 34-year history. In a recording that surfaced last month, Ghalibaf can be heard giving a speech to members of the Basij, a state-funded paramilitary group often enlisted to provide assistance to police in times of domestic tension or unrest. In it, Ghalibaf allegedly takes pride in his role in cracking down on protesters in Tehran in 1999 and 2003, and he acknowledges being a key player in the security forces’ violent crackdown against post-election protests in 2009.

Meanwhile, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a hard-liner candidate without much support, has now dropped out of the race.

(Image: Screenshot of the Guardian’s interactive guide to the Iranian presidential candidates.)