- Associated Press - Sunday, January 13, 2013

TEHRAN — Elections to pick Iran’s next president are still five months away, but that’s not too early for some warning shots by the country’s leadership.

The message to anyone questioning the openness of the June vote: Keep quiet.

A high-level campaign — including blunt remarks by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — seeks to muzzle any open dissent over the process to select the successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and likely usher in a new president with a far tamer political persona.

Public denunciations are nothing new against anyone straying from Iran’s official script.

However, the unusually early pre-emptive salvos appears to reflect worries that the election campaign could offer room for rising criticism and complaints over Iran’s myriad challenges, including an economy sputtering under Western-led sanctions, double-digit inflation and a national currency quickly losing value.

“Elections, by their nature, are an opportunity to make your voice heard,” said Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center based in Geneva. “Iran’s leaders understand this very well and are not likely to take any chances.”

The main goal of Iranian authorities is to avoid any repeat of 2009, when reform-leaning candidates were allowed on the ballot and led an unprecedented street revolt after Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election to his second, and final, term amid claims of vote rigging.

The protest leaders are now under house arrest. Their opposition Green Movement has been systematically dismantled through crackdowns and intimidation.

The next group of presidential hopefuls — which must be cleared by Iran’s ruling clerics — is almost certain to have no wild cards.

The emphasis is likely to be on easing the domestic political friction, as Iran attempts to ride out sanctions, while negotiating a deal with the United States that would allow Tehran to keep some levels of uranium enrichment, the centerpiece of its suspected nuclear-weapons program.

The West and others fear Iran’s ability to make nuclear fuel could eventually lead to warhead-grade material. Iran claims it seeks reactors for energy production and medical applications. Iran is scheduled to hold talks with envoys from the U.N. nuclear agency later this week.

For more than a year, internal political spats have been an unwelcome distraction for Iran’s ruling system.

Mr. Ahmadinejad shattered protocol by openly defying the all-powerful Supreme Leader Khamenei over a Cabinet choice.

What followed was a feud that left Mr. Ahmadinejad politically weakened and many of his allies sidelined or jailed. It also raised major doubts about whether his chief protege, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, will be allowed on the June 14 ballot.

Perceived front-runners in the election campaign include former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and ex-Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei.

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