ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- For eight years, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played the role of global provocateur-in-chief: questioning the Holocaust, saying Israel should be erased from the map and painting U.N resolutions as worthless. His provocative style grated inside Iran as well -- angering the country's supreme leader to the point of warning the presidency could be abolished.
Now, a race is beginning to choose his successor and it looks like an anti-Ahmadinejad referendum is shaping up. Candidate registration starts Tuesday for the June 14 vote.
Leading candidates assert that they will be responsible stewards, unlike the firebrand Ahmadinejad, who cannot run again because he is limited to two terms. One criticized Ahmadinejad for "controversial but useless" statements. Others even say the country should have a less hostile relationship with the United States.
Comments from the presumed front-runners lean toward less bombast and more diplomacy. They are apparently backed by a leadership that wants to rehabilitate Iran's renegade image and possibly stabilize relations with the West.
The result however may be more a new tone rather than sweeping policy change. Under Iran's theocratic system, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wields supreme power, making final decisions on nuclear and military questions. However, the president acts as the public face of the country, traveling the world. A new president might embark on an international image makeover and open the door to less antagonistic relations with Iran's Arab neighbors and the West.
The vote comes at a critical time in Iran, a regional powerhouse with about 75 million people and some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers are at an impasse while the Islamic Republic barrels ahead with a uranium enrichment program that many are convinced is intended for atomic weapons. Iran also serves as the key ally of Syria's President Bashar Assad, a mainstay so far helping keep him in power as rebels fight to oust him.
It is also in the middle of an apparent shadow war with Israel. Tehran has blamed Israel for deadly attacks on its nuclear scientists. Israel in turn has alleged Iranian attack plots on its diplomats or citizens around the world, including one where two Iranians were convicted of planning to attack Israeli, American and other targets in Kenya on Thursday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned repeatedly that Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons, through use of force if need be.
While polls in Iran are unreliable, the tenor of the candidates' speeches reflects a sense among the public that Ahmadinejad's belligerent stance toward the rest of the world has not helped.
"Ahmadinejad has followed a policy of confrontation. He made a lot of enemies for Iran. What were the results?" asked Tehran taxi driver Namdar Rezaei, 40. "The next government should pursue a policy of easing tensions with the outside world."
All the main candidates -- including a top adviser and a former nuclear negotiator -- are closely linked to the ruling clerics, since opposition groups have mostly been crushed. They reflect the mood of Khamenei, himself a former president, who wants nothing more than to end the internal political rifts opened by Ahmadinejad.
On Wednesday, Khamenei told prominent clerics to avoid "divisive" comments during the election. It is the clerics who will select a small group of hopefuls, probably no more than six, for the ballot.
The ultimate goal is to find ways to ease painful Western sanctions that have evicted Iran from international banking networks, brought public complaints over rising prices and cut vital oil exports by more than half. But what still stands in the way is a complicated dance: Maintaining uranium enrichment while addressing Western fears that Iran could move toward atomic weapons -- a charge it denies.
For more than two years, Ahmadinejad has openly defied Khamenei in an attempt to expand the authorities of the presidency. The disputes reached a meltdown point in late 2011, when Khamenei's loyalists mounted an impeachment campaign. Khamenei stepped in to call it off, but warned that Iran could one day eliminate the presidency for a system where the parliament picks a prime minister instead.
"This is a chance for Iran to bring a new tone after eight years of Ahmadinejad," said Ehsan Ahrari, a Virginia-based strategic affairs analyst. "There seems to be a real interest in the ruling system to quiet things down."
Of course, Ahmadinejad is not likely sit on the sidelines after he leaves office. He still carries significant populist support across Iran, particularly in rural areas that benefited from aid from his government. Whichever candidate he backs could get an Election Day bump.