DUBAI (Reuters) - Friday's presidential election in Iran is unlikely to bring significant change to the Islamic republic, whose supreme leader has ensured hardline candidates dominate the field. But the sole moderate could yet upset the race.
World powers embroiled in talks with Iran over its disputed nuclear program are looking for signs of a recalibration of its negotiating position after eight years of inflexibility under firey populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran's uncompromising nuclear negotiator Saed Jalili is prominent among four hardliners competing for the post, while one of his predecessors, the more conciliatory Hassan Rohani, has been endorsed by reformists after moderate former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was barred.
While intensifying nuclear-related sanctions on Iran have been a hot election topic, the other major global issue, its backing of President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Hezbollah in Syria's civil war, has not been raised by the six candidates.
Ahmadinejad, who gave repeated speeches seeming to call for the destruction of Israel, will not be missed in the West, but expectations for a radical change in direction are low.
"It would be good not to have someone like Ahmadinejad but it won't make much difference. We're not waiting with bated breath for the new president because the supreme leader is running policy," said a Western diplomat.
The president's comparative lack of power within the Iranian system does not make the election insignificant however.
"The Iranian president ... will have a seat at the table when Iran's major foreign policy and nuclear policies are decided," Mohsen Milani, an Iran expert at the University of South Florida told reporters. "Elections are not free," he said, "but they are extremely significant."
After publicly backing Ahmadinejad when protesters disputed his 2009 election, Khamenei fell out with him after he sought to use public rallies to challenge the leader's authority. Analysts say Khamenei wants a compliant president, but above all, no repeat of the 2009 unrest.
"There's a certain paranoia on the regime's part about the potential for more unrest and discontent pouring out into the streets. They really want to manage this election," U.S.-based Iranian journalist Hooman Majd told reporters.
"That is unusual and different than in the past when elections have been much freer," he said.
Authorities barred two prominent dissenting figures from standing, leaving four "shades of grey" conservative hardliners loyal to Khamenei alongside a former oil minister who says he is neither conservative nor reformist, and moderate cleric Rohani.
Reformists, led by former president Mohammad Khatami who won election landslides in 1997 and 2001, endorsed Rohani this week, adding to pressure on the hardliners to thin their field.
Rafsanjani has also endorsed Rohani, who was his national security advisor when president.
Rohani has openly criticized the pervasive security and vowed to improve Iran's relations with the outside world. Several members of Rohani's team and supporters were arrested after calls for the release of political prisoners were chanted at one of his election rallies.
To avoid the embarrassment of the 2009 protests, Iran's electoral authorities have left little to chance to ensure the ballot passes off quietly - from disqualifying high-profile candidates, to tight controls on campaigning and TV debates.
Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who as reformist candidates led the "Green Movement" that disputed the 2009 election result, are under house arrest and the jubilant pre-election reformist rallies of that time are absent.
"There are no gatherings in the streets, candidates cannot have public meetings in the city, only inside stadiums and universities, with many police around. Practically there are no election activities on the streets," said a youthful Tehran resident who told of a larger police presence in the city.
"There's no atmosphere like four years ago."
Iranians who yearn for real change in Iran, estimated by some analysts at up to two-thirds of the populace, have become disillusioned with politics since what they see as the election fix of 2009 and may not turn out to vote.
"I was in line for an hour to vote on election day (in 2009) .... but even before the voting had ended they said Ahmadinejad had won. I learned my lesson four years ago," said Mona, 31, an accountant.
But others were hoping to prevent a hardline victory.
"I am not excited about voting at all. I think I will vote but not because I am hopeful or interested but because I worry that another hardliner might come to power," said Hossein, a student of English literature in the central city of Isfahan.
A big turnout would likely help Rohani and the reformist cause, but would also boost the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic's mix of religious rule backed by popular sovereignty.
A Rohani win, if permitted by Iran's electoral authorities, would lead to more tension between the president and supreme leader of the kind seen during the Khatami years and during Ahmadinejad's second term from 2005 - the inherent strain between the Islamic and the republic halves of Iran's system.
"You simply cannot have a republic whose president and parliament is subordinated to the supreme leader," said Milani. "What I believe has been happening in Iran over the last eight years is a movement away from the Islamic Republic and towards making an Islamic government."
LOYALTY AND OBEDIENCE
What started as a broad coalition to overthrow the U.S.-backed shah in 1979 has become ever narrower over time, analysts and diplomats say, making differences between those contesting power slight. But they are magnified by the struggle for office.
"All candidates have been very critical of Ahmadinejad's economic performance. But a significant difference has emerged over foreign policy and the handling of nuclear negotiations," said Shaul Bakhash of George Mason University in Virginia.
"What we see emerging is a broad loose coalition of reformers ... against the ruling conservatives," he said.
Although Khamenei says he backs no candidate, analysts say he is counting on one of three "Principlist" contenders - who profess utmost loyalty to the theocratic system - taking office.
Jalili is centre stage in the Principlists' camp. He has taken an uncompromising stance in several rounds of negotiations with world powers and is supported by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, also backed by the Guards and respected by Tehran residents for his efficiency, is regarded as more moderate as is the third "Principlist" running, Khamenei's foreign affairs advisor Ali Akbar Velayati.
Velayati's lack of power base would limit his ability to challenge the leader if he became president, but also limits his appeal as it does for non Principlist ex-oil minister Mohammad Gharazi and Mohsen Rezaie, secretary of the Expediency Council.
The refusal of any of the three Principlists to quit the race may be an indication that the leader has not yet given his backing to any one of them.
"It's very unpredictable right now," said a Western diplomat based in Tehran. "Ultimately, the leader doesn't want a strong president who thinks he can act independently."
(Additional reporting by Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; editing by Jon Hemming and Philippa Fletcher)