In six weeks Iranians will be asked to “pick” the successor to the current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Never mind that potential candidates for elected office have to be pre-cleared by the unelected and democratically unaccountable Guardian Council, we still get to call this an “election”! However, given the experience of average Iranians the last time this quadrennial charade was held in 2005, it’s perhaps no surprise that people just don’t seem that into it.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece today exploring the field. Turns out that potential candidates are equally unenthusiastic about participating. (That’s the kind of thing that happens when the opposition candidates from last time are still under house arrest)

From the Journal:

With the May 8 deadline to register for the June 14 election fast approaching, about a dozen people have thrown their hat into the ring, but none are considered to have much support.

Iranian media say the names viewed most favorably by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are believed to belong to two conservative political factions, which have formed rival coalitions.
The coalitions have said they would back a single candidate for president to avoid dividing the conservative voteā€”but have yet to say who.

It isn’t yet clear whether Iran’s reformist faction will nominate a candidate. Reformers, sidelined and imprisoned under Mr. Ahmadinejad’s tenure, remain divided on whether they should boycott the vote.

Those reading the tea leaves are focused on a couple of important players, two of them having already held the office:

Iranian media and pundits have speculated that a last-minute surprise could come from two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both seasoned and pragmatic politicians with formidable bases of support.

Neither has given a decisive answer to whether he will run. Mr. Rafsanjani was quoted last week as saying, “I haven’t yet said if I will come or not.”

Mr. Khatami’s close aides say that his candidacy is conditional on guarantees from Mr. Khamenei that he would ease restrictions on the reformists. That includes releasing prisoners and ending the house arrest of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, two men who ran in the last presidential election and became leaders of the Green Movement opposition.

(That means Khatami isn’t running! Would you? The regime is already issuing thinly veiled threats in his and Rafsanjani’s directions)

And Ahmadinejad partisans are looking like potentially viable candidates, though the growing rivalry between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad make the prospect of a candidate like this look less and less likely.

One potential candidate everyone is watching: Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the top adviser to the current president and a controversial figure in his own right. Many view him as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s choice so as to guarantee a continuation of his policies and legacy.

But in a jab meant for those around the supreme leader, he said, “People don’t like to be told all the time what to do and how to behave. The people themselves know very well which direction is wiser, more powerful and more influential.”

Ironically, Mr. Mashaei is gaining ground with some young and secular Iranians, who previously backed the Green Movement, because he is perceived as willing to stand up to Mr. Khamenei, and has advocated nationalism over Islamist identity.

“I will vote for Mashaei,” said Hoda, a 24-year-old graduate student in Tehran who didn’t give her name and counts herself as a Green Movement supporter. “Why shouldn’t we take advantage of someone standing up against the clergy?”

An anti-clerical position might play on the street, but guess who is in charge?

“Whomever the next president is, he has to obey the orders of the supreme leader and Islam,” said Hojatolislam Ali Saeedi, a cleric who represents Mr. Khamenei in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to Iranian media reports.

For all the fuss, it’s important to remember that this event is extremely unlikely to matter on any of the substantive issues that really matter. This means that Iran’s nuclear policy is unlikely to change even if Ahmadinejad’s successor is more palatable to the west. This means that the regime is still going to inflict terrible human rights violations upon its people. It means this because the guy really in charge isn’t going anywhere.