ALI AKBAR DAREINI
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Signs on currency exchange shops in Tehran explained why the doors where temporarily shut: Waiting to see if former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would seek to reclaim the office. On Sunday, the money changers reopened early amid a mini-surge in Iran's gasping economy after Rafsanjani joined the race.
Tehran's stock exchange nudged higher. Merchants cut prices as the slumping Iranian currency clawed back about 4 percent against the U.S. dollar.
That's how much Rafsanjani's surprise decision reawakened Iran's presidential election process, which now includes more than 680 hopefuls and will culminate June 14 with just a handful of names on the ballot to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The common wisdom held that the ruling clerics, which vet all the candidates, would clear only an establishment-friendly slate and pro-reform voters would be kept on the margins after years of withering crackdowns. The decision by another former president, Mohammad Khatami, to stay out of the race appeared to seal the scenario.
Suddenly, though, the 78-year-old elder statesman Rafsanjani has challenged that equation by putting his name in the election mix just minutes before the registration deadline Saturday.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third story in an occasional series examining the June 14 Iranian election and the wider global and internal Iranian consequences at the end of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's era.
He has enough of a liberal aura to re-energize reformers for the first time since being crushed in the wake of Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election. He also is seen as a potential steadying hand on Iran's sanctions-sapped economy as a "millionaire mullah" patriarch of a family-run business empire.
In one of his first statements since joining the race, Rafsanjani spoke in general terms Sunday of seeking a new "economic and political" rebirth in a time of "foreign threats and sanctions."
Meanwhile, he still holds a senior position inside the ruling theocracy -- and unimpeachable credentials during the 1979 Islamic Revolution -- that gives him tough armor against likely attempts to sully his reputation as the election moves into its next stage.
The challenge, however, is whether reformists can fully rally behind a leader who left office 16 years ago and has built a reputation as a cunning political survivor that earned him a host of nicknames including Akbar Shah, or Great King. He has criticized crackdowns on dissent, but also retains a top post inside the theocracy and closely follows the official line on issues such as Iran's nuclear program and regional alliances including Lebanon's Hezbollah and Syria's regime.
"Rafsanjani is still the only real candidate who can pull together reformists," said Hamid Reza Shokouhi, an editor at the pro-reform Mardomsalari newspaper.
There is no guarantee Rafsanjani even will make the final candidate list approved by the ruling clerics next week. But he casts a wide net that cannot be easily ignored.
As Rafsanjani headed to the Interior Ministry to submit his name on Saturday, dozens of supporters lined the streets to shout words of thanks. The numbers might be insignificant. But any kind of public outburst by reformists is certain to be noticed by authorities.
Late Saturday, a group of pro-reform leaders gathered as Khatami called Rafsanjani's candidacy "a national opportunity" and urged liberals and moderates to unite behind him. Some reformist candidates, including one of Khatami's former vice presidents, pledged to withdraw to throw his support behind Rafsanjani, who last sought the presidency in 2005 in a loss to Ahmadinejad that has left bad blood that lingers still.
"Khatami has guaranteed reformist support for Rafsanjani," said Tehran-based political analyst Ali Dowrani. "Reformists are reaching a consensus to back him."
It's somewhat of a political bandwagon by default.
With Khatami staying out, there were only longshot candidates for Iranians seeking to ease the hard-line pressures since 2009, including sharp clampdowns on the Internet and political freedoms. The leading opposition candidates from four years ago, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest, while establishment enforcers, such as the paramilitary Basij corps, have been given far greater reach.
Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, Faezeh, was released from jail in March after serving a six-month sentence in connection with the post-election chaos. His middle son, Mahdi, also is to stand trial in coming weeks for his alleged role in the riots.
Rafsanjani, too, has suffered some blows but never enough to sweep him aside.
His main dissent moment came amid the punishing attacks on protesters claiming vote fraud brought Ahmadinejad back to power in 2009. Rafsanjani denounced the violence on both sides, but the comments were perceived as a message to the Revolutionary Guard and ruling clerics.