Iran’s presidential election next month could could cause a split among the country’s conservatives.
The June 18 election is already widely expected to be a showdown between conservative Ali Larijani, a former Parliament speaker, who is now billing himself as a reformer, and ultraconservative judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi.
While the list of approved candidates has yet to be released, the elections committee said close to 600 candidates, including 40 women, have registered to stand to succeed moderate President Hassan Rouhani. He cannot run again because of term limits.
Many candidates are linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
All will be vetted by the Guardian Council, a conservative-dominated, unelected body in charge of overseeing elections, and only a handful will be allowed to run.
This is causing fissures within the ranks of political hardliners, who must unite and decide which candidate to back.
Fractures within Iran’s conservatives date back to the “Green Movement”, which emerged in 2009 when the re-election of populist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was disputed.
Mr Ahmadinejad’s re-election ushered in Iran’s “ultraconservatives” who defined themselves as “revolutionaries”, in reference to a saying by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: “I am not a diplomat. I am a revolutionary.”
The ultraconservatives oppose traditional conservatives, accusing them of being "the guardians of the status quo", according to the ultraconservative daily newspaper Javan.
Conservatives and ultraconservatives opposed Mr Rouhani in 2013, the year he won the presidency. So-called “principalists” mobilised against his policy of openness with the West, accusing him of selling off Iran’s interests.
Mr Khamenei backed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the nuclear deal, reached in Vienna in 2015.
Centrist conservatives such as Mr Larijani, who at the time was parliamentary speaker, also rallied to support the agreement.
But the withdrawal of the US from the deal and its subsequent reinstatement of sanctions in 2018 reinstatement of sanctions revived support for the ultraconservatives.
As the economic impact of the sanctions bit, ultraconservatives’ criticism of Mr Rouhani’s government grew.
Iran’s parliamentary elections in February last year exposed the growing discontent with the reformist government.
Only 42 per cent of those eligible to vote did so, the lowest turnout of any election in the country, and a hardline majority was elected to Parliament.
Muhammad Sahimi, an expert on Iranian politics, said a low voter turnout often results in the election of hardline politicians, whereas a turnout of more than 60 per cent almost always ushers in reformist candidates.
As polls approach next month, Iran and world powers are once again engaged in talks in Vienna, seeking to revive the nuclear deal.
The ultraconservatives continue to push back against Mr Rouhani’s government, but have thus far fallen in line, following the position of Mr Khamenei.
Even Mr Raisi, who won 38 per cent of votes in the 2017 race, says the priority is for US sanctions to be eased. He did not fully support the nuclear agreement but implied that, if he wins, he is likely to keep Iran onboard.
Mr Larijani, speaking to an audience of more than 20,000 people on the social media app Clubhouse, defended the nuclear deal.
He also spoke in support of the Rouhani government’s push for diplomacy with the West, saying: “We should try to reach a deal as soon as possible and all the focus must be on improving economic conditions because the country is in a worrying situation in terms of poverty.”
The presidential elections’ outcome will hinge on Iran’s ailing economy, its role in the world, internet freedom. Mr Raisi and Mr Larijani are expected to clash on a number of these issues in debates on television and on social media platforms such as Clubhouse.
Voter turnout is currently expected to be about 40 per cent, in contrast with Iran’s most recent elections, which attracted about 71 per cent of the electorate.