05/10/2013 01:25 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

"Hashemi Rafsanjani, Is the Real Fire!"

With less than 40 days to the presidential election in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is confronted with a real challenge: reformers, conservatives and deviants!

After all the troubles the regime faced in the wake of the 2009 presidential election where it placed the two leading candidates Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi under house arrest, the government decided to conduct this next election in a more low-key manner.

For the first time in the republic's history with less than five weeks to the election, the candidates are still unknown. Apparently, Ayatollah Khamenei and the Council of Guardians (responsible for vetting candidates) have shortened the period between registration and approval in order to minimize the public's anticipation about the election.

All had been coming along smoothly until ordinary people began inviting Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, both former presidents, to run again. Alarm bells rose when hardliners learned that both Khatami and Hashemi Rafsanjani were interested in running for the office or at least being influential in the outcome of the elections.

The regime had intended for less popular candidates to run. Candidates such as the mayor of Tehran Mohammad Bagher-Ghalibaf, former foreign minister and now aid to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, and Hassan Rouhani former nuclear chief negotiator are among those interested in the presidency and that fit the bill.

But the regime had made a miscalculation. While Moussavi and Karroubi remain under house arrest, Mohammad Khatami is testing the waters. The reformists decided to take action even if Moussavi and Karroubi remain prisoners, indicating that they do not wish to boycott the election.

For Hashemi Rafsanjani the situation is very different. The man who was once the revolution's pillar and survived during all these years counts on his influence among the clerics in Qom and of course the public.

Perhaps Hashemi Rafsanjani's most notable and unforgettable action was his role in making Ali Khamenei the next supreme leader when Ayatollah Khomeini died.

The revolutionary man who was once the apple of the eye of the Revolutionary Guards and appointed by Khomeini as de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military during the Iran-Iraq war, is now deeply unpopular among those loyal to the Supreme Leader.

And yet, Hashemi Rafsanjani was able to shift political alliances to survive politically and remain relevant. When the breeze of reform entered the political scene with Khatami's successful election in 1997, Hashemi Rafsanjani changed gear.

It was the time to stand with people no matter whether the reformists ruined his reputation and stabbed him in the back.

When the reformists had completed what they thought was necessary to clear their account with Hashemi Rafsanjani, then it was the new conservatives' turn to trash the former president and his family in order to gain power.

Most recently President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his young conservative supporters took their turn to attack Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Yet, he has survived all the public mistrust and hatred and has forged a new bond with them when he led a historical Friday prayer four years ago. At that post-election traumatized nation, he led a historical Friday prayer.

From Friday prayers Tribune in Tehran, Hashemi Rafsanjani made statements, which he should not have said and created a new boundary between him and the ultra-conservatives.

Rafsanjani's calls to restore trust by releasing prisoners, freeing the media, emphasizing the rule of law, and engaging in dialogue between the opposition and the regime, were couched in the language of legitimacy and justice. "Don't let our enemies laugh at us for putting people in prison," the cleric urged, "We must search for unity to find a way out of our quandary." He shifted from the Supreme Leader's side to the side of the people.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is almost 80 years old but his candidacy or involvement can pose a significant challenge and difference in this election. The Council of Guardians would face a backlash if it disqualified Hashemi Rafsanjani who is in the system and still has an official title. He may withdraw his candidacy in favor of other candidates but his presence and support can serve as a game changer and this is exactly what makes Khamenei and his people very upset.

In between, President Ahmadinejad and his people remain quiet. They have been labeled as a deviant movement and their possible candidate who might be Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, the current Chief of Staff, is another challenge on the head of the system.

It can happen that a few rather interesting candidates such as Mashaei and Hashemi Rafsanjani compete--far from what Ayatollah Khamenei had expected! A few months ago in Cairo during President Ahmadinejad's visit, I asked Ahmadinejad's assistant what he thought of Hashemi Rafsanjani's possible candidacy. He replied, "He is fire. He is the real fire..."

This article has been syndicated from Al-Ahram weekly.