TEHRAN, Iran – Elections to pick Iran's next president are still five months away, but that's not too early for some warning shots by the country's leadership.
The message to anyone questioning the openness of the June vote: Keep quiet.
A high-level campaign — including blunt remarks by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — seeks to muzzle any open dissent over the process to select the successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and likely usher in a new president with a far tamer political persona.
Public denunciations are nothing new against anyone straying from Iran's official script. But the unusually early pre-emptive salvos appears to reflect worries that the election campaign could offer room for rising criticism and complaints over Iran's myriad challenges, including an economy sputtering under Western-led sanctions, double-digit inflation and a national currency whose value has nosedived.
"Elections, by their nature, are an opportunity to make your voice heard," said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. "Iran's leaders understand this very well and are not likely to take any chances."
And Iranian authorities hold nearly all the cards. Their main goal this time is to avoid any repeat of 2009, when reform-leaning candidates were allowed on the ballot and led an unprecedented street revolt after Ahmadinejad's re-election to his second, and final, term amid claims of vote rigging.
The protest leaders are now under house arrest and their opposition Green Movement has been systematically dismantled through crackdowns and intimidation. The next group of presidential hopefuls — who must be cleared by Iran's ruling clerics — is almost certain to have no wildcards.
Instead, the emphasis is likely to be on easing the domestic political friction as Iran attempts the strategic version of a win-win: Finding ways to ride out sanctions, while negotiating a deal with the U.S. and allies that would allow Tehran to keep some levels of uranium enrichment, the centerpiece of its nuclear program.
The West and others fear Iran's ability to make nuclear fuel could eventually lead to warhead-grade material. Iran claims it only seeks reactors for energy production and medical applications. Iran is scheduled to hold talks with envoys from the U.N. nuclear agency later this week.
For more than a year, internal political spats have been an unwelcome distraction for Iran's ruling system.
Ahmadinejad shattered protocol by openly defying the all-powerful Supreme Leader Khamenei over a Cabinet choice. What followed was a feud that left Ahmadinejad politically weakened and many of his allies sidelined or jailed. It also raised major doubts about whether his chief protege, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, will be allowed on the June 14 ballot.
A more likely scenario — at the moment, at least — is more predictable loyalists to both the ruling system and its guardians, the powerful Revolutionary Guard. Perceived front-runners include former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and ex-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei.
But it will be months before any kind of race begins. In the meantime, Iranian authorities appear ready to pounce hard on any perceived opposition.
What has touched a nerve has been debates among reformists and moderates, including former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, about whether Iran will hold "free elections" — a coded phrase pointing to the expected rejection of any potential opposition candidates.
Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, responded sharply. He equated the phrase with aiding the Islamic Republic's "enemies" — meaning the U.S., Israel and others — that have raised questions about the fairness of Iran's elections. Iranian leaders also are concerned about a possible low turnout if former Green Movement backers stage a boycott.
"Even those who may make general recommendations about the election out of good will for the nation must be cautious not to help the enemy's purpose," Khamenei told a crowd in Tehran last week. "Be careful that your words don't discourage people from the elections."
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel, said the Arab Spring uprisings — including the rebellion against Iran's key ally Bashar Assad in Syria — are likely to keep Iranian authorities on high alert for any signs of unrest as the election draws closer.
"When the supreme leader looks at these developments, it would be understandable for him to be concerned," Javedanfar said.
In a rare common message, Friday prayer leaders around Iran described the phrase "free elections" as a new buzzword to create "sedition" in the upcoming vote. Hardliners call opposition leaders "seditionists."
"Those promoting the term of 'free elections' are politically defeated ones. Others who raise this term are monarchists, the U.S. and Israel ... shame on you. Why do you repeat the words of the enemy?" said Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, addressing Friday prayers at Tehran University. Jannati heads the Guardian Council, which vets election candidates.
In the seminary city of Qom, prayer leader Mohammadi Saeedi called the term "free elections" an effort "to create riots in the upcoming elections."
"We steadfastly declare that people, having put the 2009 sedition behind, won't allow the enemy and seditionists to create riots in the elections," he said.
Mohammad Shahcheraghi, leading prayers in Semnan, about 150 kilometers (90 miles) east of Tehran, urged authorities to stamp out the "second sedition."
"From today, anyone ... who promotes the term free elections should be considered an opponent of the position of the supreme leader and has served the ominous aims of the enemy," he said.
Tehran-based political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand interpreted the attacks as an attempt to keep Rafsanjani and others from trying to build a new pro-reform movement around the vote.
"The slogan of 'free elections' casts doubt on the authenticity of previous elections," he said. "That makes the establishment unhappy and authorities take it as an indication that reformists are seeking to provoke tensions ahead of the vote."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.