When newspaper headlines across Tehran earlier this week declared Hashemi Rafsanjani, the reformist-leaning former president, to be a registered candidate for the presidential elections in Iran this June, even political observers were stunned.
The registration of hopefuls for Iran's June 14 election ran over a five-day period ending on March 11. The president is elected for a four-year term in a national election, but the Guardian Council, a body controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, must first vet each registered candidate to ensure they satisfy the required criteria to serve as president. The Interior Ministry reported that more than 680 people applied for candidacy this year, of whom 30 per cent were women.
Reports in the Tehran media suggested that Ayatollah Khamenei had permitted Hashemi Rafsanjani to run as a candidate, after which he applied. But whether Mr. Khameini actually endorses Mr. Rafsanjani as president is another matter.
Nazenin Ansari, diplomatic editor of the newspaper Kayhan London, believes that the move to allow Mr. Rafsanjani to run for president was a tactic to appeal to reformist voters and to bring more people out to the ballot box. With the unprecedented voter turnout in the last presidential elections in 2009, where 85 per cent of the population cast a ballot, the government is under pressure to spark election fever – albeit a controlled sort of fever – once again. The results of those elections were fiercely disputed by the reformist opposition, triggering mass street protests and resulting in a harsh crackdown.
"Rafsanjani is like a symbolic candidate for all the prospective reformist candidates," Mr. Ansari says. "Two things the Islamic regime wanted to ensure this time are mass participation and to erase the memory of 2009. To do this they need to generate interest and excitement – which they certainly have after Rafsanjani entered the race – because now people are saying the elections have become unpredictable."
Having a high voter turnout also translates into a restoration of legitimacy of the Islamic Republic – both in the eyes of their own people and in the wider region.
Whether Mr. Rafsanjani, 75, carries enough weight in popularity to become president is also doubtful. As one of the founding members of Iran's clerical government (serving as president from 1989 to 1997) and a founder of its nuclear program, he is the current chairman of the expediency council, which holds an advisory role to the supreme leader.
For many Iranians, he is a symbol of corruption.
His family, which has investments in pistachio farming, real estate, auto-making and a private airline worth a total of $1-billion, are considered to be among the most well-connected and affluent families in Iran. The opaque nature of his wealth has been a key point of attacks from his critics, particularly from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has previously accused the family of financial corruption.
Mr. Rafsanjani has also angered conservatives by calling for the immediate release of political prisoners and for better ties with the West. His ouster as expediency council chairman in 2011 was thought to be a result of his tacit funding of the 2009 Green Movement protests and criticism of the government's crackdown on the Green protests. Several of his children were jailed for participating in the 2009 protests and later released. Mr. Rafsanjani later reportedly made amends with Ayatollah Khamenei upon being reappointed as chairman in March, 2012.
Ali Mourani, a Iranian researcher based in Washington, believes that Mr. Rafsanjani in fact has a good chance of victory, based on his potential ability to unite reformist and conservative factions. Ayatollah Khamenei is unlikely to support a specific candidate, he says, and if one considers the upheaval that ensued following the 2009 election, the chances of vote-rigging and poll fraud are also low. "The great variety in the election and the convoluted character of the political transactions in this round of voting compared to the bitter experiences of the past has reduced the likelihood of the elections being engineered or the votes being tampered with," he says.
For some Iranians looking for change, Mr. Rafsanjani stepping into the race will amount to little or no change in Iran. Still bruised from the government's fierce crackdown after the last election, and the continued house arrest of reformist leaders Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, some reformists stay abreast of political developments from Arjuman Argasheer, the Paris-based advisor that Mousavi appointed to lead the party in exile.
Others inside Iran do not believe he could possibly be a reformist.
Professor Mohammad Marandi, head of the North American Studies Department at the University of Tehran, refuses to believe that Mr. Rafsanjani even supports the Green movement. "For some politicians and Iranians in the West to imagine that the Greens can come to power under him is mere fantasy," he says. "Rafsanjani is not Green. The Greens tried to overthrow Ahmadinejad by pretending the results of the last election were fraud and having riots on the streets."
One thing is clear – the government is doing everything in its power to avoid a repeat of the last election. "After 2009, some clerics publicly declared the Green Movement as 'the greatest threat to the government since the Iran-Iraq war," notes Mr. Hashemi. "The problem, as seen by the conservatives, was that the leaders had a lot of internal legitimacy… they were by-products of the revolution. And they were pious and practising Muslims. Bringing these people to trial would have involved a huge political cost to the regime so house arrests were deemed more effective."
How effective the movement can be in exile remains to be seen. "The Green Party is committed to reform not revolution," Mr. Hashemi adds. "Their strategy is one of patience and endurance – they're waiting for the right time."
Shenaz Kermalli is a Toronto-based journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern issues.