Iran's clerical authorities are taking no chances in this week's election for a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, four years after huge street protests shook the Islamic regime to the core.
The hand-picked candidates are all conservatives. More than 20 Iranian journalists have been locked up, while many foreign journalists who witnessed the political explosion after Ahmadinejad's contested re-election in 2009 have been kept out of Iran. internet connections inside Iran have slowed to a crawl.
After the funeral procession of an outspoken cleric turned into an anti-government protest last week, when some mourners at the funeral of Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri in Isfahan chanted, "Death to the dictator", some surprises may be possible. "There's always a possibility that things will go off script, though at the moment they have quite a tight control over the election," said Professor Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian studies at St Andrews University in Scotland.
Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, noted that the funeral protest had been spontaneous. He too doubted that Iranian security forces would allow any similar demonstrations.
Voting begins on Friday night NZT. Seven candidates are now vying for the presidency with the approval of the constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, after one little-known hardline contender, Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, pulled out yesterday. He is a former parliamentary Speaker whose daughter is married to the son of Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He did not endorse another candidate when he withdrew, despite being a member of a coalition of "principlist" contenders along with charismatic Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister. But he called for the victory of their hardline conservative faction.
Velayati clashed with the most pro-reform candidate, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, during the candidates' final debate last week. Rowhani, the Foreign Ministry negotiator who forged an ill-fated deal with the EU under which Iran froze its nuclear programme, was notably accused of giving up too much. He retorted that the 2004 move had been approved by the spiritual leader.
There were reports that the other pro-reform candidate, former Vice-President Mohammad-Reza Aref, had agreed to stand aside to enable Rowhani to represent the reformist camp unchallenged. Velayati, who is the senior foreign policy aide to the Supreme Leader, criticised the negotiating stance of the current nuclear envoy, Saeed Jalili, a war veteran seen until now as a front-runner in the election.
The Guardian Council earlier ruled out any semblance of a contested poll by barring former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from standing, as well as the protege of Ahmadinejad, his former aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie. The live televised presidential debates have thrown up plenty of evidence that the Iranian establishment is not monolithic, as the eight men held different views on women's rights, security and censorship. But it is acknowledged that the successor to Ahmadinejad, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third term, will have the support of Ayatollah Khamenei. The 73-year-old Supreme Leader has the final say on the most important matters of state.
He waded into the campaign last week by warning critics both inside and outside Iran against "giving concessions to our enemies".
Since 2009, when the Green Movement led by presidential contenders Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mahdi Karroubi challenged the election results which gave Ahmadinejad a controversial first-round victory, the opposition has been significantly weakened. The two Green Movement leaders have been under house arrest for more than two years, and many of their supporters jailed.
With such a predictable result expected, it could be that disillusioned Iranian voters won't even bother to turn out. Ansari says the abstention rate could be "difficult to assess in the absence of any serious observers." Conveniently, the Iranian Fars news agency has already reported that the turnout will be around 90 per cent.
Ghaemi said that some reformers planned to vote for Rowhani - who has called for the release of political prisoners - in a tactic aimed at "forcing the Supreme Leader to commit fraud" by installing a conservative candidate. The Isfahan protests "showed that the Green Movement isn't dead, but dormant."