London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The only reformist candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential poll, Mohammad-Reza Aref, withdrew from the race on Monday, following calls for unity amongst the country’s moderates and reformists.
In a statement, Aref said that he had decided to withdraw at the urging of former president Mohammad Khatami.
“I have received a letter from Seyed Mohammad Khatami in which [Khatami], as the leader of the reformist camp, has urged me to withdraw in favor of reaching consensus and unity,” he said.
Aref served in Khatami’s cabinet during his first term as president, between 1997 and 2001, and then as his senior vice-president between 2001 and 2005.
Hassan Rasooli, a spokesperson from Aref’s campaign, said on Tuesday morning that Aref was not planning on endorsing Rouhani because “both have still disagreements on various topics,” he was quoted as saying by the IRNA news agency.
Whether Aref decides to endorse Rouhani or not, his decision to withdraw is likely to boost the latter’s chances. As the most moderate of the remaining high-profile candidates, Rouhani may now attract votes from reformists bereft of other options, especially after Khatami’s intervention.
Unofficial estimates indicate that Rouhani alone may be able to muster at least 15 to 20 million votes, while the conservative vote may split three ways.
Although former parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel dropped out of the race on Sunday, fierce competition continues between the three remaining high-profile conservative candidates: mayor of Tehran Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.
The intervention of Khatami follows a challenging four years for both the former president and Iran’s reformists more generally. After supporting Mir Hossein Mousavi during and after the disputed election of 2009, which led to wide-scale protests against alleged vote-rigging by the government, Khatami has faced official restrictions on his movements and public appearances, while the press was not allowed to publish his picture.
In the run up to the June 14 election, it was initially believed by many observers that Khatami would nominate himself as a candidate, but it appears that he judged that his candidacy would be rejected by Iran’s Guardian Council, the body charged with vetting presidential and parliamentary candidates.
Khatami subsequently urged his predecessor as president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, to stand, despite Rafsanjani’s stated unwillingness. Hashemi Rafsanjani was disqualified by the Guardian Council, together with several hundred other would-be candidates including Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei, a controvsersial former senior aide of outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Out of eight candidates originally approved by the council, six belong to either traditional or the radical “principalist” factions of Iran’s conservatives. Of the remaining candidates, only Aref describes himself as belonging to reformist camp, while Hassan Rouhani has positioned himself as a moderate centrist.
The election is scheduled to take place on Friday, June 14.