UPDATE 1525 GMT: The Supreme Leader has issued a warning of possible manipulation of the Presidential election on Friday.
Ayatollah Khamenei said, “Some may seek to commit fraud in this midst. The Iranian people have enemies. In the face of the enemy, the people’s countenance should indicate will power, conviction, self-confidence, calm and equilibrium.”
The Supreme Leader’s statement appears to be an attempt to shift the burden of any claims of fraud in the likely event of a close outcome between President Hassan Rouhani and the choice of Khamenei’s office, hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi.
Factions in the regime intervened in 2009 to ensure a first-round majority for then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blocking the challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. Encouraged by Khamenei a week later, they suppressed subsequent mass protests.
Since then, Khamenei has periodically warned of foreign-supported “sedition” against the Islamic Republic. Mousavi, along with his wife Zahra Rahnavard and fellow 2009 candidate Mehdi Karroubi, has been under strict house arrest since February 2011.
The Supreme Leader told his audience on Wednesday, “Regional nations have pinned their eyes, with praise and envy, on people’s turnout in the Friday election to once again witness the grandeur of the Iranian nation, the freedom in the Islamic establishment and the religious democracy.”
Responding to the conservative-hardline challenge to President Hassan Rouhani, centrists rallied around the incumbent on Tuesday, three days before the May 19 election.
On Monday, conservative Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf withdrew and endorsed hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi. The withdrawal of Qalibaf, who had been neck-and-neck with Raisi for second in polling, gave the cleric — backed by the Supreme Leader’s office — a clear run at defeating Rouhani in the first round.
Polls have shown Rouhani with about 43% to 45%, short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri responded on Tuesday with his own withdrawal and enthusiastic praise of Rouhani. He told a loud, crowded rally in Shiraz in southern Iran:
I feel that I have fulfilled my duty and withdraw my candidacy in order to make my utmost to support Rouhani and help him promote his future plans.
At the current juncture, I consider supporting Rouhani and a firm vote for him as support for the powerful Iranian nation, which is entitled to pin its hope on [having] a better future.
Rouhani was also boosted on Tuesday by the endorsement of Sayyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the creation of the Islamic Republic.
Hassan Khomeini has been allied with centrists and reformists since the disputed 2009 Presidential election and the subsequent mass protests.
The state of the economy is the leading issue in Friday’s election. Rouhani has hailed recovery after the 2015 nuclear deal with the 5+1 Powers, and the reduction of inflation from more than 40% to less than 9%. Raisi and Qalibaf have said that most Iranians have not benefited and claimed Government mismanagement. All three men have accused each other of association with corruption or tax avoidance.
The Supreme Leader has implicitly put pressure on Rouhani, criticizing his policy linking economic recovery to engagement with other countries and accusing the Government of accepting international organizations dominated by Iran’s foes.
Montazeri Backs Rouhani
The family of the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who almost succeeded Ayatollah Khomeini but was then put under house arrest until his death in 2009, also announced support for Rouhani: “This round of the election is not a simple choice between two or more individuals. It is the choice between two totally different ways of thinking and behaving.”
Last year the Grand Ayatollah’s son, Ahmad Montazeri, was sentenced to 21 years in prison after he released an audio file from August 1988, recording his father’s meeting with the members of a revolutionary death panel overseeing the execution of thousands of political prisoners. The term was suspended in March.
Ebrahim Raisi, now seeking to become President, was one of the members of the death panel.
TOP PHOTO: An election rally in southern Iran hears 1st Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri withdraw in favor of President Hassan Rouhani, May 16, 2017