TEHRAN, Iran – For eight years, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played the role of global provocateur-in-chief: questioning the Holocaust, saying Israel should be erased from the map and painting U.N resolutions as worthless. His provocative style grated inside Iran as well — angering the country's supreme leader to the point of warning the presidency could be abolished.
Now, a race is beginning to choose his successor and it looks like an anti-Ahmadinejad referendum is shaping up. Candidate registration starts Tuesday for the June 14 vote.
Leading candidates assert that they will be responsible stewards, unlike the firebrand Ahmadinejad, who cannot run again because he is limited to two terms. One criticized Ahmadinejad for "controversial but useless" statements. Others even say the country should have a less hostile relationship with the United States.
Comments from the presumed front-runners lean toward less bombast and more diplomacy. They are apparently backed by a leadership that wants to rehabilitate Iran's renegade image and possibly stabilize relations with the West.
The result however may be more a new tone rather than sweeping policy change. Under Iran's theocratic system, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wields supreme power, making final decisions on nuclear and military questions. However, the president acts as the public face of the country, traveling the world. A new president might embark on an international image makeover and open the door to less antagonistic relations with Iran's Arab neighbors and the West.
The vote comes at a critical time in Iran, a regional powerhouse with about 75 million people and some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers are at an impasse while the Islamic Republic barrels ahead with a uranium enrichment program that many are convinced is intended for atomic weapons. Iran also serves as the key ally of Syria's President Bashar Assad, a mainstay so far helping keep him in power as rebels fight to oust him.
It is also in the middle of an apparent shadow war with Israel. Tehran has blamed Israel for deadly attacks on its nuclear scientists. Israel in turn has alleged Iranian attack plots on its diplomats or citizens around the world, including one where two Iranians were convicted of planning to attack Israeli, American and other targets in Kenya on Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned repeatedly that Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons, through use of force if need be.
While polls in Iran are unreliable, the tenor of the candidates' speeches reflects a sense among the public that Ahmadinejad's belligerent stance toward the rest of the world has not helped.
"Ahmadinejad has followed a policy of confrontation. He made a lot of enemies for Iran. What were the results?" asked Tehran taxi driver Namdar Rezaei, 40. "The next government should pursue a policy of easing tensions with the outside world."
All the main candidates — including a top adviser and a former nuclear negotiator — are closely linked to the ruling clerics, since opposition groups have mostly been crushed. They reflect the mood of Khamenei, himself a former president, who wants nothing more than to end the internal political rifts opened by Ahmadinejad.
On Wednesday, Khamenei told prominent clerics to avoid "divisive" comments during the election. It is the clerics who will select a small group of hopefuls, probably no more than six, for the ballot.
The ultimate goal is to find ways to ease painful Western sanctions that have evicted Iran from international banking networks, brought public complaints over rising prices and cut vital oil exports by more than half. But what still stands in the way is a complicated dance: Maintaining uranium enrichment while addressing Western fears that Iran could move toward atomic weapons — a charge it denies.
For more than two years, Ahmadinejad has openly defied Khamenei in an attempt to expand the authorities of the presidency. The disputes reached a meltdown point in late 2011, when Khamenei's loyalists mounted an impeachment campaign. Khamenei stepped in to call it off, but warned that Iran could one day eliminate the presidency for a system where the parliament picks a prime minister instead.
"This is a chance for Iran to bring a new tone after eight years of Ahmadinejad," said Ehsan Ahrari, a Virginia-based strategic affairs analyst. "There seems to be a real interest in the ruling system to quiet things down."
Of course, Ahmadinejad is not likely sit on the sidelines after he leaves office. He still carries significant populist support across Iran, particularly in rural areas that benefited from aid from his government. Whichever candidate he backs could get an Election Day bump.
He is now trying to push his top adviser and in-law, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, onto the ballot, but will likely be rejected by the Guardian Council, the group that vets all candidates. Ahmadinejad has been traveling around Iran for weeks, sometimes along with Mashaei.
After the internal political upheavals he triggered, the clerics are expected to stick with safe and loyal candidates, and the candidates know it and are playing to that dynamic.
Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, chided Ahmadinejad for "controversial but useless" statements that undermined Iran's international standing.
"Where did the case of the Holocaust take us? We were never against Judaism. It's a religion. ... No one could accuse us of being anti-Semitic," he told Iran's Tasnim news agency last month. "But suddenly, without consideration for the results and implications, the issue of the Holocaust was raised. How did this benefit Iran or the Palestinians?"
Another prominent candidate, Ali Akbar Velayati, took a clear shot at Ahmadinejad by saying Iran needs a "principlist" as the next president — meaning a conservative who will not question the authority of Khamenei or the ruling clerics.
Velayati, a senior adviser to Khamenei, has joined in an unusual three-way alliance with Qalibaf and parliament member Gholam Ali Haddad Adel. Each has promised to give key posts to the two others should he win the presidency.
"If we do not succeed, we have to try for another eight years in order to take back the country's management," Velayati said in a February speech in the seminary city of Qom.
Velayati has deferred to Khamenei on any possible overtures to the U.S. But Qalibaf and others suggest they would urge the leadership to remain open for direct talks.
"Confrontation with the U.S. is not a value by itself," Qalibaf said. "At the same time, an alliance with or bowing to the U.S. won't meet our interests, too. These are two extremist views. We should follow a realistic approach. Dialogue (with the U.S.) is not a taboo."
Mohsen Rezaei, a former chief of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard chief who is seeking another chance at the presidency after losing four years ago, says only that he favors a "win-win dialogue."
"That means we won't lose and they (West) won't think Iran is a threat to the world," he said.
And candidate Hasan Rowhani, Iran's former nuclear negotiator and Khamenei's top national security representative, also disparaged Ahmadinejad's grandstanding style, saying Iran needs a "government of prudence."
Another candidate, former Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, said even restoring diplomatic ties with Washington is not out of the question as long as Iranian "interests are ensured."
"I believe there is no need for Iran to be at war with the U.S. forever," he said. "Iran has the capacity to protect and ensure its national interests while having ties with the U.S."
Ahmadinejad foe Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, appears unlikely to make one last presidential run, despite speculation to the contrary. The official IRNA news agency quoted Rowhani on Wednesday saying the 78-year-old Rafsanjani "will definitely not" be a candidate.
However, Rafsanjani still wields considerable clout, and his endorsement will carry weight. Earlier this week, Rafsanjani urged his nation to lower tensions with Iran's archenemy Israel, which is considering military action over Tehran's nuclear program.
"We are not at war with Israel," Rafsanjani was quoted as saying by several Iranian newspapers, including the pro-reform Shargh daily. He said Iran would not initiate war against Israel, but "if Arab nations wage a war, then we would help."
Ahmadindejad's role in this election stands in sharp contrast to the last, where he was front and center and backed by the clerics. Accusations that his re-election was clumsily rigged by a clerical establishment panicked by the possibility of reformers coming to power led to massive demonstrations and reprisals spanning weeks, the most serious unrest in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution itself.
The election was so contentious that the two main opposition leaders of 2009, Mir Hossein Mousavi and cleric Mahdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest. The remnants of the opposition appear increasingly unlikely to persuade their one major hope, former President Mohammad Khatami, not to seek a comeback run. That leaves them with the choice of boycotting the vote or picking from an establishment-friendly lineup.
While this election is unlikely to spark the same fireworks, a desire for change remains.
"Why shouldn't we be in good terms with the outside world? Why tensions at home and abroad?" asked 35-year-old real estate agent Shahram Rashidi in Tehran. "That's why we really need a totally different president this time."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.