TEHRAN, Iran – A record 1,010 people registered by Saturday to run in next month's presidential elections, which ruling clerics see as a chance to consolidate their power following the departure of reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search).
Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani (search), who moves frequently between the hard-line and more moderate camps, will likely be a front-runner in the race. Rafsanjani has in the past sought to make contacts with the United States, a stance shunned by hard-liners.
Eighty-nine women were among those who registered by the Saturday night deadline, although the hard-line Guardian Council (search) — a constitutional watchdog that supervises the elections — has already said it will not allow women to run.
The Council, which has 10 days to vet applicants, caused outrage among reformists when it disqualified more than 2,000 who registered last year in legislative elections, effectively barring reformers from the assembly. The move led to a low turnout and reformists denounced the vote as a "historical fiasco."
The Council will likely be more cautious with the presidential vote. With the United States focusing its attention on Iran, the country's clerical leadership wants a high turnout to avoid further damage to its legitimacy.
The presidential hopefuls include several senior hard-line politicians, a number of political dissidents and even Nasser Hejazi, a former goalkeeper of the national soccer team who has no political background.
Many of those who registered knew they had little chance of being allowed to run, hoping instead to make a political statement or just get the attention of friends. But there seemed to be little public interest in the presidential race.
Ali Mahmoudi, eligible to vote for the first time this year, said: "There is no eagerness and discussion about the election among my classmates and teachers."
"Who cares, the president has no power in Iran's power pyramid. Why should I waste my time for voting that concludes nothing?" asked Mohammad Ali Tehrani, 34.
State-run television has pushed the vote with commercials showing footage of past elections, and refers to June 17, election day, as a "fate-making" day. Earlier this week, Iran's top nuclear negotiator said the negotiations on the country's nuclear program would be stronger if more people voted, suggesting a strong turnout would lend legitimacy to the ongoing talks in Europe.
The outgoing Khatami, who came to power in a landslide in 1997, was regularly stifled in his attempts to bring political and social reforms by hard-line clerics led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He is barred by law from seeking a third term.
A number of Khamenei loyalists are expected to run to replace him. Among them are the former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei; the top police commander Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf; Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and the former head of state radio and television Ali Larijani.
Iran's largest reform party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, has chosen Mostafa Moin, a former Cabinet minister and close Khatami ally, as its candidate. Other reformists support former parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karroubi.
Ebrahim Yazdi, a political dissident and former foreign minister who leads the banned Freedom Movement of Iran, is also registered for the elections.
Aazam Taleghani, a female political activist, said she registered to challenge the Guardian Council.
Women are barred from running on the basis of an interpretation of the constitution by the Guardian Council. The constitution says the president must be elected from among political "rijal" — an Arabic word that means literally "men" but can be interpreted simply as political personalities regardless of their gender. Many Arabic words have been incorporated into Persian or Farsi.
In the 2001 presidential election, 814 nominees registered.
About 48 million Iranians are eligible to vote, according to official statistics. Voting eligibility begins at the age of 15.