Iranian reformists rally around common candidate

Election calculus shifting in the country

TEHRAN — Iran’s presidential race lost one more candidate Tuesday but gained a new script: reformist leaders uniting behind relative moderate Hasan Rowhani to boost his once-improbable shot at victory.

Former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani fell behind Rowhani after a rival moderate bowed out in attempts to consolidate reform-minded forces.

The move forced hard-liners and conservatives favored by the ruling clerics to consider anointing their own unity candidate or risk having Friday’s election slip away.

‘‘Rowhani now has the best situation among the candidates,’’ said Saeed Leilaz, a Tehran-based political analyst. ‘‘He will win the election on Friday.’’


But reformists still have major challenges ahead following former vice president Mohammad Reza Araf’s withdrawal from the presidential race.

Rowhani’s backers must persuade their flock to go to the polls rather than boycott a vote many allege to be unfree and unfair. Iran’s election overseers last month pruned the list of would-be hopefuls to eight candidates, most of them loyalists favored by both the theocracy and the military.

Among those cut from the candidates list was Rafsanjani, angering many reformists who believed only he had the stature to defeat the hard-liners. Rafsanjani praised Aref’s decision to withdraw in favor of his protege, Rowhani.

‘‘Rafsanjani was really the only choice to re-energize reformists,’’ said Rasool Nafisi, an Iranian affairs analyst at Strayer University in Virginia. ‘‘Rowhani only got their support because he is seen as Rafsanjani’s man and a vote for Rowhani was a vote for Rafsanjani.’’

Rowhani, a 64-year-old cleric, rejects outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s combative approach in world affairs and sides with Rafsanjani’s view that Iran can maintain its nuclear program and ease tensions with the West at the same time.

Although all key decisions in Iran are ultimately in the hands of the ruling clerics, Rowhani’s ties to the influential elder statesman Rafsanjani could give him more latitude to sway viewpoints if elected president.


But a significant number of opposition backers also say they are more interested in a capable fiscal steward such as Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf of Tehran as Iran’s economy sinks under international sanctions and alleged mismanagement.