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Iran field narrows as candidates quit on campaign's last day

By AP | Jun 16, 2021

In this picture made available by Young Journalists Club, YJC, presidential candidate for June 18, elections Mohsen Mehralizadeh speaks in the final debate of the candidates, at a state-run TV studio in Tehran, Iran, Saturday, June 12, 2021. Iran's seven presidential candidates offered starkly different views Saturday in the country's final debate, with hard-liners describing those seeking ties with the West as "infiltrators" and the race's sole moderate warning a hard-line government would only bring more sanctions for the Islamic Republic. (Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/ Young Journalists Club, YJC via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s presidential contest headed toward a showdown between the country’s hard-line judiciary chief and moderate former Central Bank chief on Wednesday, as two candidates dropped out on the last day of campaigning to clear a path for the challengers.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the only reformist candidate in the vote, as well as hard-line contender Alireza Zakani withdrew from the race, state media reported, leaving just five candidates in the field. Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates.

The departure of 64-year-old Mehralizadeh, who served as governor in two Iranian provinces, aims to boost the chances of top banker Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has been running as a moderate and as a stand-in for President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from running again.

Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, the presumed front-runner long cultivated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Zakani, a 55-year-old hard-line lawmaker twice rejected from running for president, also ended his campaign, throwing his support behind Raisi.

“I consider him (Raisi) to be the most qualified,” Zakani was quoted as saying by state TV. Other candidates were expected to follow suit later Wednesday. Over 200 lawmakers in parliament, which is dominated by hard-liners, released a statement urging the rest of the conservative candidates to withdraw and back Raisi’s presidential bid.

Mehralizadeh, the pro-reform candidate, had previously served as vice president in charge of physical education under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election, but found himself barred from running in 2015.

Zakani, a hard-liner, heads the parliament’s research center. As a lawmaker he became known for his outspoken opposition to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Starting in the late 1990s, he served as head of students’ Basij organization, affiliated with the powerful Revolutionary Guard.

As the field narrowed Wednesday and Hemmati sought to consolidate the pro-reform vote, he announced he would select current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of Tehran’s now-tattered nuclear deal.

“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad,” Hemmati wrote on Twitter to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”

Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire from the political establishment in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he offered a blunt appraisal of power struggles in the Islamic Republic.

There was no immediate word from Zarif on Hemmati’s announcement, but the minister has previously indicated a willingness to join the incoming administration.

Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within.

Although a range of prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies registered to run for president, Iran’s clerical vetting body allowed just several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners, to run against Raisi. Owing in part to the disqualifications as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic, voter apathy runs deep. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has most recently projected a 42% turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid mounting calls for a boycott.

In his weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Rouhani urged the public to vote, state TV reported.

“It does not do us any good if the election is cold, lacks people, and its ballots are sparsely populated,” said Rouhani.