When Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a leading hardline politician, visited coronavirus patients in hospital, the contrast with centrist president Hassan Rouhani could not have been starker.

Mr Ghalibaf, 59, was happy to stand close to hospital staff and patients, while Mr Rouhani, 71, an advocate of strict social distancing, has not visited any hospitals for fear of infection.

Without naming Mr Ghalibaf, Iran’s president this month cautioned against taking unnecessary risks, likening doing so to braving danger in an earthquake and then “the ceiling collapses on your head”. The media team for Mr Ghalibaf, a former veteran Revolutionary Guards commander, retorted that anyone scared of dying was not qualified to run the country.

The testy exchange comes as hardliners lobby for their candidates for next year’s presidential polls, with whoever emerges as the frontrunner likely to become the country’s next president.

Support for Mr Rouhani and the reformist camp has collapsed amid an economy devastated by US sanctions and the region’s worst coronavirus death toll. With the president standing down after two terms in office, his replacement will have to steer the country through its economic crisis and manage tensions with the US.

Mr Ghalibaf, Iranian parliament speaker and former Tehran mayor, is unofficially vying with Ebrahim Raisi, a cleric and the judiciary chief, for the hardliner nomination, a decision made in secret by senior political figures.

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Hardliners trumpet their candidates’ willingness to take risks as indicating their strength and ability to stand up for Iran on the world stage.

Mr Rouhani’s signature achievement was the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The move proved popular with Iranians because sanctions imposed over the country’s atomic programme were lifted. But it was a blow to hardliners, largely based in the office of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and among the elite Revolutionary Guards and senior clergy.

The US decision to abandon the deal in 2018 and reintroduce sanctions has devastated not just the Iranian economy but the electoral prospects of centrists and reformists.

President Hassan Rouhani
President Hassan Rouhani at a cabinet meeting last week. Support for Iran’s president and the reformist camp has collapsed amid an economy devastated by US sanctions and the region’s worst coronavirus death toll © Iranian Presidency/DPA

“Since the [1979] Islamic revolution, we have never seen this level of public hatred toward a president, which means people have lost their faith in reformists . . . creating unprecedented good conditions for [hardliners] in public opinion,” said Hamid-Reza Taraghi, a hardline politician. “The coming months can determine whether Mr Ghalibaf can provide a solution for people’s economic problems through the parliament. Otherwise, Mr Raisi could be the top candidate.”

According to the criteria set by Ayatollah Khamenei, the hardliners aim to choose a candidate loyal to the aims of the Islamic revolution, help the country stand on its own feet and maintain the US as its arch enemy.

The contest is taking place in the shadow of a US presidential election battle between incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden. Mr Biden has signalled he could rejoin the Iran nuclear deal if Tehran comes back into compliance

“Many hardliners believe a man of war such as Mr Ghalibaf should stand against Mr Trump if he is re-elected,” said Mohammad Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician.

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While the election of Mr Biden could re-energise Iran’s reformists, a hardline regime insider said that given the vociferousness of Mr Trump’s supporters, it would “hopefully” take time for stability to emerge in the US.

“Reformists are finished, full stop. Mr Rouhani will fade away after the election and reformists will not have the time to use Biden as a leverage in the polls,” said the regime insider. “Hardliners will not allow Mr Rouhani to get out of the current disaster or restart negotiations with the US in his last months in office, which could turn into a victory for reformists.”

While Mr Ghalibaf is seen as a favourite, in the 2017 contest he withdrew in favour of Mr Raisi. Mr Rouhani won a landslide victory

Mr Raisi, who may yet emerge as a consensus candidate for the hardline camp, has crafted a reputation for fighting against corruption — even bringing charges against children of senior politicians — and has championed judicial reforms and released tens of thousands of prisoners during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Ghalibaf has promised to take care of the poor and distribute food vouchers, a popular initiative in a country reeling from high inflation, falling growth and a plummeting currency.

A compromise moderate candidate could be Ali Larijani, former parliament speaker and nuclear negotiator, who is respected by reformists thanks to his previous support for the nuclear agreement.

In the reformist camp, disillusion is high. Senior figures are struggling to get approval from the hardline constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, to stand in the election. Meanwhile, many people have said they will never vote again, a boycott that would benefit hardliners, whose supporters traditionally vote in large numbers. With many reformist candidates barred, turnout in this year’s parliamentary elections was the lowest since the 1979 revolution.

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But reformists have not completely lost hope. “It is not the first time hardliners have made plans and are confident about their victory,” said Hossein Marashi, a reformist politician.” But Iran’s presidential elections since 1997 have been characterised with surprises which can happen once again.”

Via Financial Times