Reformists in Iran find spark in race for president

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TEHRAN, Iran -- He talks about easing the political restrictions imposed by Iranian authorities. He tells crowds that rebuilding ties with Western governments is better than denouncing them as irreconcilable enemies.

At a rally Monday, crowds that gathered for candidate Hasan Rowhani broke out in chants for the release of political prisoners.

Suddenly, the accidental envoy of Iran's besieged reformists in Friday's presidential election seems to be awakening -- even if briefly and sporadically -- an opposition energy that has been largely stamped down after years of crackdowns. That is jolting authorities who once felt that they were in full control of the ballot and eventual outcome.

Mr. Rowhani, a former nuclear negotiator, was among the eight candidates left standing last month when Iran's election overseers chopped down the list of would-be hopefuls. Among those cut was Mr. Rowhani's mentor and many moderates' candidate-of-choice, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Iran's ruling clerics left a candidate list largely stacked with loyalists favored by both the theocracy and its powerful protectors, the Revolutionary Guard.

But a jumble of fast-track strategy sessions about race among reform-minded leaders and the possibility of converging behind Mr. Rowhani suggests that their camp has not given up hope.

"It's become more than just about whether Rowhani will do well or not," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center, based in Geneva. "It's about an idea. That idea is whether Iran's moderates and reformers are still capable of coming together and making themselves heard."

In the northwestern city of Oroumieh, Rowhani backers chanted the name of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under house arrest since early 2011 for leading massive protests claiming that he was denied the presidency by vote-rigging four years ago. The crowds also called for all political detainees to be freed.

Mr. Rowhani -- the only cleric in the race -- is still a long shot to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election in 2009 unleashed the worst domestic unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Beyond shaping the candidates' list, Iranian authorities also have kept an extremely tight lid on any possible dissent, keeping close watch for impromptu political rallies and trying to further choke off the Internet. That alone might seem to seal the decision. But Mr. Rowhani's profile has been steadily rising, as liberals and others refused to bow out quietly -- as Iran's leaders may have hoped after blocking the elder statesman Mr. Rafsanjani.

Mr. Rowhani represents an important test for Iran's broad spectrum of alternative voices, from moderates who want less confrontation with the West to hardened opposition groups at odds with the Islamic system as a whole. Mr. Rowhani's backers now must figure out tactics to revive enough reformist energy to give him a credible run.

He'd need to coax votes from the many people who have vowed to boycott the election after Mr. Rafsanjani's rejection. Also, a significant number of former opposition backers say they are now more interested in a capable fiscal steward, such as Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, as Iran's economy sinks under international sanctions and alleged mismanagement.

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