Reformist Drops Out of Iran Election on Last Day of Campaign

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -
Presidential candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh attends an election debate in Tehran, Iran, June 12. (Morteza Fakhri Nezhad/YJC/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters)

The only reformist candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential election dropped out of the race Wednesday on the last day of campaigning, state media reported, likely trying to boost the chances of a moderate candidate.

Mohsen Mehralizadeh, 64, resigned in a letter to Iran’s Interior Ministry, which runs elections in the Islamic Republic, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. Such dropouts are common in Iranian presidential elections in order to boost the chances of similar candidates.

Mehralizadeh’s departure likely will boost former Central Bank chief Abdolnasser Hemmati, who has been running as a moderate and as a stand-in for President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from running again.

Hemmati on Wednesday said that he would select Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to join his administration as either his vice president or foreign minister, embracing the top diplomat who was an architect of Tehran’s now-tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

“The economic development of Iran is not possible without strong diplomatic engagement abroad,” Hemmati wrote on social media to explain his choice of Zarif. “My administration is after the removal of sanctions and use of foreign policy to achieve political development.”

The move appeared aimed at consolidating the pro-reform vote just ahead of the poll. Zarif, among the best-known political figures in the Rouhani administration, has come under fire from the political establishment in recent weeks after the leak of a contentious audiotape in which he offered a blunt appraisal of power struggles in the Islamic Republic.

There was no immediate word from Zarif on Hemmati’s announcement, but the minister has previously indicated a willingness to join the incoming administration.

Mehralizadeh’s withdrawal Wednesday leaves six candidates in the race. Polling and analysts indicate Hemmati lags behind the country’s hard-line judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, the campaign’s front-runner long cultivated by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Other hard-line candidates may drop out Wednesday to lend their support to Raisi.

Mehralizadeh served as governor in two Iranian provinces, as the vice president in charge of physical education under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and as a deputy in the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, which runs the country’s civilian nuclear program. He came in last place in Iran’s 2005 election, but found himself barred from running in 2015.

Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hard-liners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within.

Although a range of prominent reformists and key Rouhani allies registered to run for president, Iran’s clerical vetting body allowed just several low-profile candidates, mostly hard-liners, to run against Raisi. Owing in part to the disqualifications as well as the raging coronavirus pandemic, voter apathy runs deep. The state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has most recently projected a 42% turnout from the country’s 59 million eligible voters, which would be a historic low amid mounting calls for a boycott.

In his weekly Cabinet meeting on Wednesday, Rouhani urged the public to vote, state media reported.

“It does not do us any good if the election is cold, lacks people, and its ballots are sparsely populated,” said Rouhani.