Nearly 700 presidential hopefuls have thrown their names into the ring for Iran's June 14 presidential elections. But two last-minute entrants have altered the shape of the already-chaotic race: a former president once dismissed as a has-been and Iran's chief nuclear negotiator.
Although not exactly a free-for-all, analysts say, there's a clear sense that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has failed to unify the political elite behind a single establishment candidate. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's embattled president, is barred from running for a third consecutive term — though he continues to try to influence the field, throwing his weight behind his own handpicked candidate.
Analyst Mohammad Ali Shabani, a researcher at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says the lack of unity was underscored over the weekend when former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, whose political obituary was being written just a few years ago, jumped into the race literally as the deadline for registration closed.
"I think it's huge — not just because of his own candidacy, but also the way in which he changes the calculation of all the other candidates," Shabani says. "The impact is huge."
Rafsanjani, who fell out of favor in 2009 when he supported some of the aims of the now-crushed Green Movement, has Iran's political classes abuzz with speculation. One popular scenario has Khamenei cutting a deal to give Rafsanjani's allies key posts in the next government if the former president drops out of the race.
Shabani says this school of thought argues that Rafsanjani, at age 78, may be willing to accept behind-the-scenes power instead of another term as president.
"This shouldn't come as a surprise because Rafsanjani has repeatedly talked about the need for setting up a national unity government for the past couple of years," Shabani says. "So I think Rafsanjani's and the system's best interests will be best served if he acts as kingmaker rather than king."
Analysts say despite their differences, Khamenei and Rafsanjani agree on the need to freeze Ahmadinejad's camp out of power. As to who the compromise candidate might be, some are leaning toward another late entrant into the race, chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
Such a scenario involving the supreme leader and the former president remains speculative, but it has the added appeal of thwarting the ambitions of Ahmadinejad, who is defying Khamenei by campaigning hard for his chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
Ahmadinejad's star hit rock bottom with conservatives earlier this year when he launched embarrassing public accusations of corruption against the political elite.
A number of presidential candidates wasted no time in ripping Ahmadinejad's economic policies, which are now being blamed just as much as international sanctions for Iran's fiscal woes. Former Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Gharazi didn't even mention sanctions in a recent interview with Iran's Press TV.
"Previous administrations have, of course, tried their best, but still the high inflation rate is the most important problem that we are facing," Gharazi said. "The government should not spend more than it earns."
End Of Ahmadinejad Era
The fate of Gharazi and the other candidates now rests with the powerful Guardian Council, which vets the candidates and decides who among them is eligible to become Iran's next president. Spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei says the council is already reviewing the candidates for competence and ideological purity.
The vetting process is likely to last 10 days, launching the short but intense final campaign push to next month's ballot. Analyst Farideh Farhi at the University of Hawaii says despite fears Ahmadinejad has more disruptive tricks up his sleeve should his candidate Mashaie be disqualified, the outgoing president's ability to influence events is already evaporating.
"I would say that Ahmadinejad will not go down easily. But all in all, the Ahmadinejad era is over," Farhi says. "And no matter what he does, he will not be able to impact the general direction of the country."
Among the many uncertainties regarding Iran's political future is the possibility that no candidate will gain 50 percent of the vote in the first round, requiring a runoff.
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