TEHRAN, Iran – On the roughneck streets in south Tehran, a group of paramilitary volunteers looks to hard-line presidential candidate Saeed Jalili — Iran's top nuclear negotiator — as the best defender of the Islamic system. On the other end of Tehran's social ladder, a university professor in a marble-trimmed apartment building plans to boycott next week's election because he rejects all the candidates allowed on the ballot.
A confusing mix of shifting political views, apathy and indecision is brewing across Iran's capital. Taken together, it suggests the June 14 race to replace President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could be closer and more complex than reflected by the size of rallies or the depth of ties to the all-powerful theocracy — both hallmarks of Jalili's bid that have earned him an aura of front-runner.
Instead, rivals such as Tehran Mayor Mohammed Bagher Qalibaf and Jalili's predecessor as nuclear envoy, Hasan Rowhani, are increasingly mentioned by voters wanting fewer West-bashing diatribes and more attention to Iran's sinking economy and its nuclear impasse with the West, according to dozens of interviews across Tehran by The Associated Press.
Many also expressed dismay over the disqualification of centrist ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, which dashed the hopes of reformist groups. Election overseers barred him from running, along with Ahmadinejad's protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth story in an occasional series examining the June 14 Iranian election and the wider global and internal Iranian consequences at the end of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era.
The Islamic establishment and its guardians, led by the Revolutionary Guard, hold firm control of the Islamic Republic after crushing opposition forces in the chaotic wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election four years ago. All key decisions remain in their hands, including the direction of Iran's nuclear program and the level of support for regional allies such as Syria's Bashar Assad.
The vote, however, is still important as a measure of Iranian priorities in a country under increasing strain from an economy unraveling under alleged mismanagement and international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
In broad strokes, the choice is whether to endorse the high-voltage rhetoric of defiance favored by Jalili or the quieter diligence needed to address the ailing economy.
Across Tehran — from the most neglected districts to Western-style high rises with doorman service — conversations about the election often veered to the economy, rising prices and international isolation during interviews by the AP.
While it's impossible to extrapolate solid trends from such a snapshot of voters, the attention on the economic worries could boost candidates seen as sound fiscal stewards, such as Qalibaf. The frustrations over Iran's standoffs with the West, in turn, could favor candidates seen as capable of nudging Iran's ruling clerics on a more moderate course such as Rowhani or former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref.
Meanwhile, a diverse range of Iranians ranging from liberal activists to 63-year-old psychology professor Yahya Seyyedi plan to boycott the vote. Their reasons fuse two powerful gripes: Relentless crackdowns on even modest political dissent since the unrest in 2009, and disgust over the rejection of moderate Rafsanjani.
"I would have voted for Rafsanjani," Seyyedi told the AP in the leafy north Tehran district of Farmaniaeh. "The rest have no plan to bypass the current international and economic crises."
Without credible pre-election polling in Iran, there is no way to accurately assess who is on top. The picture is further clouded by the rejection of the 78-year-old Rafsanjani, who is a rare political specimen in Iran: powerful and venerable enough to stand up to the ruling clerics and influence decisions. The remaining eight candidates all have varying degrees of ties to the theocracy and are not expected to press too hard against its authority. They witnessed how Ahmadinejad tried to do that and was left politically battered when the ruling clerics turned against him.
Jalili, a former professor and diplomat, surged into the foreground with fist-waving rallies that echoed Ahmadinejad's rise in 2005 from Tehran mayor to the presidency. But he seemed out of step Friday during an all-candidate televised debate that focused strongly on ways to deal with Iran's mounting economic troubles, including nearly 30 percent inflation and a national currency that has plunged in value in the past two years.
"I do not care about TV debates," said Khalil Alikhani, a metal shop worker and member of the Revolutionary Guard's paramilitary Basij corps in the south Tehran district of Javanmard Qassab. "I have heard from my comrades in Basij that (Jalili) is the best."
Handling the domestic economy is one of the main mandates of Iran's presidency. Qalibaf, in particular, used the debate to showcase his budget-handling credentials and quality-of-life projects. Qalibaf's city hall has doubled green space in overcrowded Tehran and improved public transportation and highways.
"Qalibaf has proved he can get things done as mayor," said Behrouz Ahmadi, a taxi driver in middle-class southeast Tehran. "The rest just produce promises without any clear record."
The mayor also has won the support of 45-year-old Bita Maskout in the affluent Saadatabad neighborhood in northwest Tehran. Four years ago, she voted for the reform-minded Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is now under house arrest along with fellow former candidate Mahdi Karroubi.
"As they say often in American politics, 'It's the economy, stupid,'" said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the Middle East Studies program at Syracuse University. "This is true in Iran, too."
Yet it's impossible to separate the economy from discussions over sanctions, which are set to tighten further July 1 with Washington targeting trade of energy-related technology and gold sales.
Two moderate-leaning candidates — Rowhani and Aref — are seen as possible middle-ground forces who could encourage the Islamic leadership to look for an elusive compromise: Seeking ways to ease the West's nuclear concerns without making key concessions such as uranium enrichment. The U.S. and allies fear Iran could eventually develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists it only seeks reactors for energy and medical research.
On Sunday, close allies of former reformist president Mohammad Khatami urged Rowhani and Aref to join forces in a "united front."
In the western neighborhood of Sadeghieh, Mahnaz Amiri, a teacher of Farsi literature in a girls' school, said she will now turn to Rowhani after backing Ahmadinejad in the past. It's a decision mostly based on economic survival — with prices for some staples such as chicken rising threefold in the past year.
"Twice I voted for Ahmadinejad in hope of better life for me and my two daughters," she told the AP. "But I am paying now 5 percent of my monthly salary for two kilograms of cucumbers and one kilo of apricots."
But, just as often, there are those vowing to stay away on election day.
In Tehran's bazaar, a clothing shop owner Raza Saeedi, 30, said he is so dismayed at Iran's leadership he cannot cast a ballot. "Now the bazaar is mainly a pedestrians' passage rather than a shopping center," he groaned.
A shopper browsing the bazaar stalls, 46-year-old Khorshid Ahmadi, also is turning her back on the election in protest of the country's isolation.
"Every four years someone says he will save country from its miseries," said Ahmadi, who voted in 2009 for Mousavi. "All it ends up is costing more to survive."
Outside Tehran's prestigious Amir Kabir Industrial University, a group of nine students gathered to drink coffee and talk politics. They embodied the sense that the election is still up for grabs: Three plan to vote for Aref, four are undecided and two will boycott.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.