RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Iran's Guardian Council does not hesitate to use its power. That's the legislative body that vets political candidates for their commitment to the Islamic Revolution. Perhaps no surprise in the upcoming presidential election, voters are able to choose from a very narrow range of candidates - all of whom support the regime. All the high-profile or independent candidates have been eliminated by the Guardian Council. And - this caused some shock - those include a man who has already held the post of president.
As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, Iranians are still trying to understand how the former leader could be considered unfit to run.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The fallout from the elimination of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani began almost immediately. Calls for his reinstatement came from a number of prominent figures, including the daughter of the revered founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini.
Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, says Iranians have seen important political figures barred from the ballot before, but never someone as prominent as Rafsanjani.
ALI VAEZ: Eliminating a founding father of this system is quite unprecedented. Someone who has been appointed by the Supreme Leader himself, to head the Expediency Council, is now eliminated from the presidential race.
KENYON: Analysts don't expect Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to reinstate Rafsanjani, who angered conservatives when he spoke positively about street demonstrations protesting the results of the 2009 presidential election.
Vaez says having already paid the price in public opinion for removing an obviously qualified former president from the contest, the leadership seems willing to show Iranians and the outside world its determination to control this election at any cost.
VAEZ: In this election, security trumps legitimacy, and the leadership wants to make sure that this is an incident-free election.
KENYON: One likely cost of this heavy-handed approach is the loss of any enthusiasm among the voters for this relatively homogeneous slate of regime supporters. Analyst Afshin Shahi, at Exeter University in England, says Khamenei's repeated calls for a large turnout may now go unheeded because the single relatively pro-reform candidate still in the race, Hassan Rowhani, is unlikely to excite the reform movement. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The pro-reform candidate is Mohammad Reza Aref, not Hassan Rowhani.]
AFSHIN SHAHI: As you can imagine, it's going to be a very dull and boring presidential campaign. Of course, there is one so-called reformist candidate. But again, he's known for his passive personality, and he's not going to pose a major kind of threat.
KENYON: In Iran, however, unexpected twists can't be ruled out, as the 2009 street protests demonstrated. Having thrown his weight behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election bid, Khamenei found his former protege engaging in loud and public disputes with the political establishment during his second term. Now, Ahmadinejad's preferred successor has also been eliminated by the Guardian Council.
Shahi says there is some speculation that this gray slate of candidates is intended to make it easier for the Supreme Leader to reduce future political friction by abolishing the presidency altogether.
SHAHI: Over the last two years, Khamenei has flirted with the idea of getting rid of the office of the president, and the presidency. And if you do look at the sort of people who have been qualified, all these eight candidates have been hand-picked because of their public, explicit obedience to the Supreme Leader.
KENYON: Meanwhile, the jockeying among conservatives goes on, with some analysts seeing chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili emerging as a safe and attractive compromise candidate - one who could be counted on to protect, rather than reform, the Islamic Republic.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.
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