- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A reformist candidate bowed out Tuesday of Iran’s presidential election, boosting the chances of the last remaining pro-reform candidate who wants better ties with the West.

Mohammad Reza Aref, who was educated at Stanford University, said in a statement on his website that he was dropping out of the race because reformist former President Mohammad Khatami had told him his candidacy was “not in the interests” of Iran’s reformers.

Mr. Aref’s exit pins reformists’ hopes on Hassan Rowhani, a former chief negotiator in nuclear talks with the European Union. The election is set for Friday.

“Rowhani has a proven record of trying to reach some sort of agreement with the West,” said Mohsen Milani, executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida. “He wants to have a friendly relationship with the West, and should he be allowed to win the presidential election, he might be able to change the orientation of Iranian foreign policy as well as its nuclear policy.”

When it comes to Iran’s foreign policy and nuclear strategy, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei has the final say.

If Mr. Rowhani wins by a substantial number of votes, however, he is going to be an influential figure, Mr. Milani said during a Council on Foreign Relations conference call.

Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American author, said if Mr. Rowhani wins, “You will see a significant difference, not just in the tone on foreign policy, but in social issues, too.”

Mr. Rowhani will be counting on the support of a large chunk of Iran’s electorate that is pro-reform and younger than 30.

“Popular support for the Islamic Republic has narrowed down significantly,” Mr. Milani said. “There is a large constituency, somewhere between 55 to 60 percent of the electorate, that is hungry for reform, hungry for change. Any candidate who can attract that large constituency … that individual can win.

“The reality is the conservative faction does not have the support among this constituency and therefore the Islamic republic and Ayatollah Khamenei are doing everything they can not to allow a candidate to emerge that can attract this large constituency,” he added.

Two-time former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was one such candidate.

The Guardian Council, a body made up of jurists and clerics that vets all candidates for elected office, controversially disqualified Mr. Rafsanjani and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.

“Rowhani is essentially a conservative man by temperament, so it is very unlikely that even if he wins he is going to challenge the supreme leader the way Rafsanjani could have challenged the supreme leader,” Mr. Milani said.

On Monday, a conservative candidate, former parliament Speaker Gholamali Haddad-Adel, also dropped out of the race. Mr. Haddad-Adel’s daughter is married to Ayatollah Khamenei’s son.

Besides Mr. Rowhani, the other candidates are Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili; Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former head of the air force wing of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; Mohsen Rezai, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; and Mohammad Gharazi, a little-known former petroleum minister.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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