Last-minute entries shake up Iran's presidential race

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TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's presidential race entered a new, unpredictable phase Saturday when two game-changing politicians, both out of favor with the country's leaders, signed up as candidates in the final minutes of a five-day registration period.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a protege of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was soundly defeated by Mr. Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election, arrived simultaneously at the Interior Ministry headquarters in the capital, Tehran, to register. The building was cordoned off by security forces restraining hundreds of people, who were shouting slogans in favor of and against Mr. Mashaei.

Both men had kept analysts wondering until the last minute whether they would participate in the elections, set for June 14. If their candidacies are approved by a council of conservative clerics and jurists -- a hurdle that analysts say will not be easy -- the men are virtually certain to shake up the campaign because they hold views that challenge Iran's governing establishment, a loose alliance of conservative Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders who hold sway over the country's judiciary, security forces, Parliament and state news media.

The men's criticisms of those governing behind the scenes will undoubtedly appeal to Iran's dissatisfied urban voters. But they also strongly oppose each other, setting the stage for a highly contested election if both men win approval to run.

Appearing at a news conference with Mr. Ahmadinejad after registering, Mr. Mashaei, 52, said he was set to continue Mr. Ahmadinejad's international policies, seen by the West as confrontational, and his economic decisions, considered controversial. Mr. Mashaei represents a new generation of politicians, defined by the president, who seem determined to oust older leaders from power. While once supported by Iran's political establishment, Mr. Ahmadinejad and his team have now fallen out of favor, mostly because they have accumulated too much influence, analysts say. "Mashaei means Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei," the president said at the news conference.

But Mr. Mashaei has been far more outspoken than his mentor on issues like personal freedoms, often stressing individual rights. He also organized a controversial conference in which a group of dancing women carried around the Quran, angering conservative clerics.

Mr. Rafsanjani, on the other hand, has cast himself as a pragmatist, calling for a more open society and better business relationships with the West. Mr. Rafsanjani, 80, a veteran of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, says Iran is in a "danger zone" because of the "amateurism" of the president and his team. A cleric himself, Mr. Rafsanjani has criticized traditionalist clerics and their supporters for trying to quash all dissenting voices.

Technically, all Iranians are free to participate in elections, but Iran's powerful Guardian Council, which vets candidates, will decide by May 23 who will be allowed to run. "I think it is highly doubtful that Mr. Mashaei will be allowed to run," said Amir Mohebbian, an analyst. "I hope we will not witness any street riots when that happens."

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