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Iran election primer: After Ahmadinejad, who will lead?

With half an hour left to register, Iran's two most controversial candidates pledged to run for president over the weekend. The country now has to wait to hear which of the handful of hopefuls will be allowed to contest the June poll. NBC News' Ali Arouzi reports from Tehran.

Iran’s June 14 elections will showcase the country’s political system, which, not well understood by many in the West, combines strong Islamic theocracy with elements of democracy. A network of unelected institutions controlled by the powerful supreme leader is countered by a president and parliament elected by the people.

Here's a guide to Iran's labyrinthine governmental operations and a glimpse at some of the men hoping to occupy the top elected office in the country.

According Iran's constitution, the most powerful political office in the Islamic Republic is that of the supreme leader. Since its inception after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, two men have occupied the role – the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The supreme leader appoints the head of the judiciary, six out of 12 members of the powerful Guardian Council, the armed forces’ commanders, the head of the country’s radio and television and Friday prayer leaders, who instruct the faithful in the performance of the Friday prayer in Iran. He also confirms the president's election.

Supreme leader's website via EPA

Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Under the constitution, the president is the second-most-important authority after the supreme leader. The president – currently Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – is elected for a four-year term by popular vote, and can serve no more than two consecutive terms. After a term away he can run for president again.

The president heads the executive branch of government, and is responsible for ensuring the constitution is implemented. 

Powerful clerical councils ultimately answer to the supreme leader.  The supreme leader controls the armed forces and makes most of the decisions regarding security, defense and major foreign policy.

The president appoints and supervises ministers, coordinates government decisions, and selects government policies to be placed before the legislature, but ultimately his power is curtailed by the clerical bodies.

All presidential hopefuls have to be vetted by the Guardian Council, the most influential body in Iran. The group, which consists of six theologians appointed by the supreme leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament, also has the authority to veto any bill passed by parliament, among other legislative and judicial powers.

An indication of the power held by the clerics and the supreme leader came on Friday when the head of the Guardian Council said it may disqualify presidential candidates who supported full relations with the United States, according to The Associated Press.

The contenders 

Three different tiers of the Iranian establishment appear to be competing against each other in the current elections.  The Guardian Council will release a list of approved candidates – culled from almost 700 who registered – to the Ministry of Interior by May 21.  The following list includes those thought to be most likely to make it onto the shortlist.

EPA, AP file

Candidates for Iran's upcoming presidential election: (from left) Former Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati; Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf; speaker of parliament Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel; chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

Supreme leader’s favorites
The first camp of contenders consists of the supreme leader’s inner circle and others perceived to be loyal to him.

  • Ali-Akbar Velayati, currently the supreme leader’s adviser on international affairs, served as foreign minister under several presidents.  He received a pediatrics degree from Johns Hopkins in 1974. Some observers believe that he lacks charisma when compared with others who are running.
  • Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran mayor, is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. Since he became mayor in 2005, he has embarked on a series of ambitious civic projects that added to his popularity. He may be seen as too independent by conservative clerics.
  • Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, the speaker of parliament, is very much part of the supreme leader’s inner circle – his daughter is married to the supreme leader’s son. But its not clear how much popular support he has.
  • Saeed Jalili is Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. His loyalty to the supreme leader appears unwavering. He also has had substantial dealings with the West, granting occasional interviews and interacting with international counterparts.  

Ahmadinejad’s man
President Ahmadinejad – who has been at odds with the clerical establishment shortly after the disputed elections in 2009 – has put all his political eggs in one controversial basket, the divisive Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The two men have been very close for the last 30 years, and Mashaei's daughter married Ahmadinejad's oldest son in 2008.  

Conservative leaders in Iran have gone so far as branding Mashaei the head of deviant current within the government, a heretic and a foreign spy. Despite a chorus of disapproval for powerful members of the establishment Ahmadinejad has stayed loyal to him.

Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani waves to media as he registers his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, May 11.

The ex-president, turned 'outsider'
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – popularly nicknamed ‘The Shark’ because of his inability to grow a beard – is one of the great political survivors of the Islamic Republic.  

Related: Last-minute entry transforms Iranian race

Rafsanjani was the de facto commander-in-chief of the military during the Iran–Iraq War, which raged from 1980 to 1988. He was widely credited with the reconstruction of the country after the devastating conflict.  

Rafsanjani’s involvement with the revolutionary government came early and he became a cleric at the age of 14.  He was elected chairman of the Iranian parliament in 1980 and served until 1989. He is also known as a king-maker and was instrumental in the appointment of Ali Khamenei as supreme leader. 

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

Rafsanjani served as president of Iran from 1989 to 1997, and 2005 he ran for a third term in office.  He ultimately lost to Ahmadinejad in the run-off round.

Rafsanjani advocates a free-market economy and is popular with the upper-middle class, who think he may be able to revive the economy.

He fell out of favor with the supreme leader because of his tacit support of the “Green Movement” protest that shook the country and provoked a violent crackdown in 2009. 


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