The polls will open in Iran Friday for voters to elect a successor to president Mohammad Khatami, although many analysts say none of the candidates is likely to win an outright majority and therefore a runoff election is likely. Specialists in the United States say no matter who is elected, major changes are not expected because hard-line religious leaders will continue to rule the country with an iron hand.
Surveys in Iran say former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani holds a modest lead over the rest of the candidates on the ballot, followed by reformist Mostafa Moin and conservative Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.
The Guardian Council supervisory body barred more than 1,000 hopefuls who registered for the election.
Eight candidates were originally allowed to run, but one conservative dropped out earlier this week.
Mohsen Sazegara was a founder of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, but became disillusioned with the hard-line religious leaders that rule the country. The Guardian Council rejected his 2001 candidacy for president.
Mr. Sazegara is currently a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and he expects little change after the Iranian election.
"No matter who wins the presidential election, there will be no real changes in Iran's domestic or foreign policy," he said. "The experiences of the last eight years showed that Mr. Khatami was not even permitted to shake hands with President Bill Clinton when both men spoke, one after the other, at the United Nations. The supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] forbade it. In practice, the control of foreign policy, nuclear policy, and the main economic policies are all within the power of the supreme leader and thus it would be futile to expect any change from a new president."
Voter apathy is reported to be high in Tehran, and some activists are calling for a boycott of the election.
William Samii is a regional analysis coordinator with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Online and is editor of the organization's Iran Report. Mr. Samii says many Iranians realize the winner of the election will have a difficult time getting any major changes passed the nation's religious leaders.
"Voter participation figures since 1997 have been on a steady decline," he said. "Whether this is an indication of a boycott or just general apathy and lack of interest in the elections is not exactly clear. I side more on apathy. People realize that going to the polls and actually voting for someone is really a pretty pointless exercise because they see that elected officials can't really accomplish much because of the way the constitution is setup with the Guardian Council vetting all legislation, vetting all candidates for elected office."
Despite the pessimistic analysis, reformers like Mohsen Sazegara say fundamental changes are occurring in Iran, especially among the country's young people.
"What is important is that we have been transferred from a revolutionary discourse to a new paradigm, which is liberalistic and democratic," he said. "This is what has happened in Iran during the last 15 years, especially amongst the young generation who are the absolute majority of the country, they are 70 percent of the country."
Political surveys in Iran are not always reliable, but they do suggest no candidate will receive a majority of the votes in Friday's election.
If that occurs a runoff will be held a week later.
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