Iran’s media was split on Sunday over which candidate to back in next month’s presidential election after a key moderate and a powerful government figure entered the fray.
The front pages of the reformist press were plastered with pictures of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate, while newspapers favouring the incumbent president touted government candidate Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei.
The Iranian conservatives, who have fielded the most candidates, did not plump for anyone in particular, but warned that “the revolutionary current” faces a dual challenge from “deviationists,” a term used by ultra-conservatives for Mashaei, and “seditionists,” referring to Rafsanjani who enjoyed the backing of the reformist movements.
Pro-reformist newspapers Etemad and Arman published photographs of Rafsanjani registering for the June 14 election on the top halves of their front pages.
The oft-banned reformist dailies Shargh and Bahar also dedicated front pages to Rafsanjani, president from 1989 until 1997. Bahar ran the headline: “An epic with Hashemi”.
The reformist Aftab daily suggested that other moderate and reformist candidates who registered for the election will forfeit in favour of Rafsanjani.
Meanwhile, newspapers that favour moderate candidates reported an advisory council of reformists met with reformist ex-president Mohammad Khatami and vowed to back Rafsanjani.
Rafsanjani, 78, currently chairs the Expediency Council, the highest political arbitration body, whose members are appointed by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Rafsanjani registering is a historic event. The country is currently facing special circumstances,” Ahmad Khoram, minister of transport under Khatami’s government wrote in an editorial published by Shargh.
“There is a consensus among the reformists towards Khatami and Rafsanjani and a healthy portion of conservatives who are concerned about the future of the nation will back Mr Rafsanjani,” he wrote.
State newspaper Iran, which is by law forbidden from campaigning for any candidate, headlined “all currents have come forward.”
Several newspapers that support President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, carried a picture of Mashaei, the incumbent’s controversial aide and ex-chief of staff.
Mashaei has been targeted by hardliners for the emphasis he places on Persian civilisation, while they favour a focus on Islamic values.
Khorshid (Sun) newspaper ran a front page picture of Mashaei alongside Ahmadinejad at the interior ministry registration centre, headlining “Zendeh baad Bahar,” (Long Live Spring), the campaign chant for Mashaei.
Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term.
In 2009 Khamenei had overturned Mashaei’s appointment as first vice president, sparking a rift between the president and conservatives loyal to the supreme leader.
It is not clear whether Mashaei will be approved by the Guardians Council, the unelected body controlled by religious conservatives appointed by Khamenei.
The council is tasked with vetting the candidates to ensure they adhere to constitutional conditions of being faithful to the principles of the Islamic republic and its official religion, before announcing the final list of hopefuls no later than May 23.
The conservative newspapers resorted mostly to reporting that the registration was over and publishing around 40 names of known politicians.
Vatan Emrooz, a hardline newspaper said in its editorial that, “one of the most important messages of the coming election is that Mashaei and Hashemi are one pole, the pole of anti-values (of the Islamic revolution) and the principalists are the opposing pole.”
“The record left by Hashemi, Khatami and Ahmadinejad has shown that the office of the president is too critical to be left to anyone,” added the editor of the daily who is close to Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator who also registered as a candidate without any prior announcement.
Jalili did not receive any special attention in Sunday’s newspapers, but some published pictures of him registering his candidacy.
However, newspapers close to Tehran’s mayor, the conservative Mohammad Baqr Qalibaf, who unsuccessfully ran for presidency in 2005, ran a picture of him registering, along with his quote on the front page: “I have come forward for the dignified, Islamic Iran.”