By Jon Hemming
DUBAI, June 13 (Reuters) - Campaigning in Iran's presidential election ended on Thursday, a day before the vote in which the sole moderate candidate has an unlikely chance to steal victory from his hardline rivals.
Hardliners have failed to agree on a unity candidate, potentially splitting their vote and improving the chances of moderate cleric Hassan Rohani to progress to a run-off poll.
The next president is not expected to produce any major policy shift on Iran's disputed nuclear programme or its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calls all the shots on the big issues.
Yet all but one of the candidates - chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili - has advocated a less intransigent approach to nuclear talks with world powers. The president can influence the tone of Iran's foreign policy with his choice of trips abroad. Khamenei, 73, never travels outside Iran.
The president will also have the task of trying to fix an economy battered by intensifying international sanctions and soaring inflation fed by state subsidies and corruption.
Friday's presidential election is the first in Iran since 2009 when reformists said the vote had been rigged to ensure the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, touching off the biggest protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Khamenei is determined to see a less troublesome, more compliant president, analysts say, but above all no repeat of the 2009 unrest that dented the Islamic Republic's legitimacy.
Consequently campaigning, which ended at 8 a.m. local time on Thursday, has been tightly restricted and subdued.
But Rohani appeared to be showing a last-minute surge with large crowds on the streets of the eastern holy city of Mashhad for his final election gathering on Wednesday.
"Rohani was amazing in yesterday's rally. It was a huge welcome and unprecedented in Mashhad," wrote one supporter on Twitter.
Pictures on social media showed what appeared to be sizeable public rallies, discouraged by authorities, in favour of Rohani in Tehran late into the night. Large rallies were also staged in the Iranian capital by supporters of hardline candidates.
Rohani, best known for his conciliatory stance in nuclear talks with Western powers between 2003 and 2005, could benefit from his rivals' failure to unite behind a single hardline candidate even after months of trying.
Despite his endorsement by reformists sidelined after 2009, Rohani is still very much an establishment figure, though one less dogmatic and more open to conciliation with the West.
In an interview with the Arabic newspaper Sharq Al Awsat published on Thursday, Rohani said Israel was behind a campaign of disinformation to label Tehran's peaceful nuclear activities a weapons programme.
"If I were to be elected president of the country, I will reflect these beliefs through regaining international trust and exposing these hidden motives," he said.
"The United States and its allies have to stop this deceit," Rohani told the Saudi-owned newspaper. He would judge U.S. President Barack Obama "by his actions, not his words" and called for sanctions to be lifted in order for ties to improve.
A high voter turnout might benefit Rohani, but more liberal Iranians likely to back the mid-ranking cleric are debating whether to vote at all, given their widespread belief that the result will be fixed as they say it was in 2009.
Some middle-class Iranians though, while not enthused about any of the candidates, may vote to try to stop a hardliner such as Jalili getting in.
"Up to today I had no intention of voting. I couldn't bring myself to, but now to anyone who asks, I say if I vote, I will vote for Rohani," wrote another Iranian on Twitter.
With no independent, reliable opinion polls in Iran, it is hard to gauge the public mood, let alone the extent to which Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guards will exert their influence over the ballot.
The election of little-known Tehran mayor Ahmadinejad as president in 2005 took many by surprise and there is no telling whether there will be a similar shock result this time round.
Jalili has run a strong campaign, but has been heavily criticised, even by fellow hardliners, for his intransigence in nuclear talks and for failing to stop the imposition of tough new sanctions. He is alone among the candidates in defending Iran's current robust, ideologically driven foreign policy.
The other main conservative candidates, while not necessarily disagreeing with the substance of Iran's present policies, have emphasised what they say will be their more inclusive domestic policies and more pragmatic style abroad.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and adviser to Khamenei, has pledged to consult widely before taking decisions, while current Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf has campaigned on his record of improving infrastructure in the capital.
(Additional reporting by Marcus George, Mirna Sleiman and Zahra Hosseinian)
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Ali Akbar Velayati
Top adviser to Supreme Leader Khamenei on international affairs. Velayati, 67, served as foreign minister during the 1980-88 war with Iraq and into the 1990s. He was among the suspects named by Argentina in a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Velayati received a degree in pediatric medicine at Tehran University in the 1960s and later studied at Johns Hopkins University. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he shifted into politics as a member of the first parliament and deputy health minister. Velayati was proposed by Khamenei – who was then president – to become the first prime minister. He was rejected by parliament and the post went to Mir Hossein Mousavi, who led the reform-minded Green Movement in the president election in 2009 and is now under house arrest for taking part in massive protests claiming the vote was rigged in favor of Ahmadinejad. Under Mousavi's government the early 1980s, Velayati was appointed foreign minister at a time when Iran's Islamic rulers were seeking to build new ties with the world. He held the post until 1997 and later became a senior international policy adviser to Khamenei. In a speech earlier this month, Velayati opened the door – just a bit – for better relations with Washington. "Iran will ... interact with the world, not with those who are expansionist and not those who, like the U.S., rattle sabers against the Islamic Republic," he said. <em>Caption: Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaks during a press conference at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus on August 9, 2010. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf
Tehran mayor and former commander of the Revolutionary Guard during the Iran-Iraq war. Qalibaf, 51, has built a reputation as a dynamic leader for a host of quality-of-life projects around Iran's capital including parks, expanded subways lines and highways. But he also has faced accusations that he took part in crackdowns against student protesters in 1999 while with the Guard and, four years later, allegedly ordered a full-scale assault to crush another flare-up of student unrest. Like many Iranian leaders of his generation, Qalibaf got his footholds in power during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Qalibaf was a Revolutionary Guard commander and later appointed to run one of the Guard's main economic conglomerates. He was appointed as the Guard's air force commander in 1997 despite not being a flier, but later received his license and now sometimes pilots passenger planes. He was named head of Iran's police forces in the shakeup after the 1999 Tehran University riots, which marked one of the first major displays of dissent against Iran's ruling clerics. Qalibaf also brings a rare element in Iran's macho politics: A high-profile wife who has carved out her own political identity. Zahra Sadat Moshiri, a former professor of social sciences at Tehran's Sharif University of Technology, has served as Qalibaf's adviser on women's affairs for Tehran. She has hosted many conferences on women's issues, including some that reflect her views about balancing Islamic traditions with needs to advance women's roles on all levels including politics. <em>Caption: Tehran Mayor and expected future presidential candidate, Mohammed Baqr Qalibaf, stands in front of an Iranian flag, during a tree planting ceremony in 'Dialogue Park' March 6, 2007 in Tehran, Iran. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)</em>
A former nuclear negotiator and close ally of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was blocked from the ballot by Iran's election overseers. Rowhani, 64, is the only cleric among the candidates and viewed as a relative moderate. He has drawn support from reformist leaders after a rival, former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out of the race in attempts to consolidate the liberal-leaning camp. Rowhani started religious studies at a teenager and soon established himself as an outspoken opponent of the Western-backed shah, traveling frequently for anti-monarchy speeches and sermons that caught the attention of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the eventual leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Rowhani graduated from Tehran University with a law degree in 1972. He then says he went abroad to Glasgow Caledonian University for a master's degree in legal affairs. After the revolution, Rowhani rose quickly with various roles, including reorganizing the military, serving in the new parliament and overseeing the state broadcaster. He strengthened his ties to Rafsanjani during the 1980-88 war with Iraq and, later, as Rafsanjani's top national security adviser during his 1989-97 terms. Rowhani took over the nuclear portfolio in 2003, a year after Iran's 20-year-old nuclear program was revealed. Iran later temporarily suspended all uranium enrichment-related activities to avoid possible sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. Ahmadinejad strongly opposed any such concessions. Rowhani resigned as nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme National Security Council after a few testy postelection meetings with Ahmadinejad. At campaign rallies, Rowhani has pledged to seek "constructive interaction with the world" that includes efforts to ease Western concerns about Iran's program and lift punishing international sanctions that have pummeled the economy. <em>Caption: Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, who chairs the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, speaks with media during a press conference March 13, 2004 in Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Majid/Getty Images)</em>
Former chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard. Rezaei, 58, ran in 2009, but finished fourth. He currently is secretary of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the parliament and Guardian Council. Rezaei is also charged by Argentina for the Buenos Aires bombing. Rezaei was a key member of an underground Islamic guerrilla group fighting the U.S.-backed shah in the 1970s and protecting leaders such Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Rezaei became chief commander of the Revolutionary Guard near the beginning of the 1980-88 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which was then backed by Washington. After stepping down from the Guard in the mid-1990s, he retained a prominent role as secretary of the Expediency Council, a group that mediates any disputes between the ruling clerics and parliament and serves as an advisory body for Khamenei. In late 2011, Rezaei's son was found dead in a Dubai hotel room. Ahmad Rezaei had spent years in the U.S. as an outspoken critic of Iran's Islamic rulers, including claiming he had firsthand knowledge about Tehran's involvement in the Buenos Aires blast. The death was investigated as a suicide, but opened a flood of unsupported speculation in Iran over possible hit squads. <em>In this photo taken on Sunday, May 3, 2009, Iranian presidential hopeful Mohsen Rezaei, a former Revolutionary Guards chief, sits prior to his press conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em>
Iran's top nuclear negotiator since 2007 and considered a hardliner. Jalili, 47, is believed to have backing from many in the ruling theocracy, including possibly Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also gained the support of ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who was previously seen as the spiritual mentor of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At campaign stops, Jalili's slogan was chanted by supporters: No compromise; no submission. Jalili also is often hailed as a "living martyr" because of losing part of his right leg in 1980-88 war with Iraq. He worked as a university lecturer before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1989, where he rose in the ranks until his appointment in 2001 as a senior policy adviser in Khamenei's office. He later served as an adviser to Ahmadinejad and deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs. He took over the important nuclear negotiator role in 2007 – in a move that surprised even some Iranian hard-liners for his rapid rise. A U.S. diplomatic cable at the time – part of the documents made public by WikiLeaks – interpreted the decision as "a move to forestall any compromises on the nuclear issue." Another cable in January 2008 noted that a European Union official described Jalili as unbending, dogmatic and "a true product of the Iranian Revolution." <em>Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili smiles as he registers his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election at the interior ministry in Tehran on May 11, 2013. (BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)</em>
A former oil and telecommunications minister. Gharazi, 71, also served in parliament in the 1980s and `90s. He is considered conservative and portrays himself as a steady-handed technocrat. Gharazi was part of part of the anti-shah forced in exile before the Islamic Revolution. He then joined parliament and was later appointed to the influential position of oil minister. He was named the minister of post in 1985 and held the job until 1997. He later served on the Tehran city council. His campaign has focused on Iran's sanctions-wracked economy. "A global definition says that low inflation and high employment figures are what make an administration popular," he said earlier this month. "Balanced inflation and employment rates are also acceptable. But a high inflation and a low employment rate are the features of an inefficient administration." <em>In this picture taken on Thursday, May 9, 2013, former Oil Minister Mohammad Gharazi, a hopeful for the upcoming presidential election, registers his candidacy, at the election headquarters of interior ministry in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em>