No Iowa debates here. This is campaign 1980, Islamic revolutionary-style. Candidates are promising everything short of pensions for parakeets. One long shot is touting a novel "total solution" to the country's problems -- self-hypnosis for everyone.
Yet almost in spite of itself, Iran's first presidential campaign since the overthrow of the Shah's dictatorship ultimately may help determine the future of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's one-man Islamic rule.
That issue, of course, is never openly discussed. Instead, some 100 candidates try to outdo each other in support of Ayatollah Khomeini, who today is the charismatic cement in a revolution seemingly fragmenting from within.
But as the scheduled late-January polling date approaches, Iran's roughly 20 million voters do seem faced with a clear choice at the top of the list: a relatively unknown scholar who probably would make a perfect second fiddle for the Ayatollah, or an ambitious finance minister who seems to envisage a much more active presidency.
Most diplomats and Iranian political analysts, while predicting a lot of abstentions, bet on the quiet academic, Jelaloddin Farsi, nominated by the powerful, clergy-dominated Islamic Republican Party. They suspect that Ayatollah Khomeini, scrupulously aloof from the presidential maneuvering so far, may even tip the scales with a public endorsement.
That may not be difficult in a campaign still virtually free of specific debate, long on promises, and somewhat short on public interest.
But Mr. Farsi does not have the field to himself. French-educated Finance Minister Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the former foreign minister who favored a negotiated resolution of the US Embassy hostage crisis, still appears to think he is in Paris. Almost alone among the candidates, he is campaigning Western-style.
Often dogmatic and plodding when chatting with correspondents in ungrammatical French, the bespectacled Mr. Bani-Sadr is said to turn suddenly electric on the stump. In factories, fields, and particularly on campuses, much of the electorate seems taken by him.
Tehran during the campaign looks strikingly like Tehran before the campaign, but there are hundreds of posters of Mr. Bani- Sadr (his face only half lit, resembling nothing so much as a publicity photo for a 1950s detective film) proclaiming:
"We hope to preserve the Islamic revolution with the great guide, Imam [ religious leader] Khomeini, and to elect Mr. Bani-Sadr president."
Given the explicit limit on presidential power set out in Iran's Islamic Constitution last year, Mr. Bani-Sadr might well make a poor president. He seems a little too self-assured; before becoming finance minister he predicted the country would have no choice but to accept his economic game plan, and he seems to have been right. Without actually saying so, he also appears determined to stretch the prerogatives of the presidency to their limit.
Constitutionally, the president is not a chief executive.Above him is Ayatollah Khomeini, who as Faghi -- or the revolution's religious leader -- appoints the top military men, can make war, and has at least theoretical veto power over just about everyone and everything, including an elected president.
Yet in remarks reported by a Tehran newspaper Jan. 8, Mr. Bani-Sadr says the new president must coordinate with the still- to-be-elected National Assembly "if our intention is to amend the shortcomings of the Constitution."
In difficult times, he is quoted as saying, the presidency must be able to "secure the people's trust in providing solutions to any form of crisis."
Mr. Bani-Sadr, like everyone else, is quick to stress his support for Ayatollah Khomeini, and for the idea of a Faghi's overseeing the government. Within the Ayatollah's Revolutionary Council, he is said to be one of the more vocal -- even sycophantic -- supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini's increasingly theocratic rule.
"It seems clear," says one veteran diplomat, "that Mr. Bani-Sadr has more personal ambition and a wider vision of the presidency than someone like, for instance, Mr. Farsi."
Diplomats emphasize that no potential president seems willing, able, or likely to encroach on Ayatollah Khomeini's power for the time being. But as one put it, "The president, whoever he is, will be the first leader with a popular mandate since the revolution. . . . That gives him potential power no matter what the Constitution says, and his own view of the office is bound to determine how fully that power is actually exercised in the long run."
Relatively little is known of Mr. Farsi. One generally well-informed ambassador admitted he had never heard of the clergy's candidate until a few weeks ago. Iranian political analysts sketch him as an intelligent theoretician , deeply religious, and apparently amenable to the idea of being an unassertive president working in the Ayatollah's shadow.
The English-language Tehran Times describes him as an "old-time freedom fighter, prominent revolutionary leader, Islamic scholar, and writer of several books on Islamic revolutionary socialism. . . ."
Mr. Farsi himself has joined other candidates, including Mr. Bani-Sadr, in unveiling an ambitious platform. Among the items are "health, wealth, and capital for all members of society."
On the campaign nonissue of the US Embassy crisis -- where Mr. Bani-Sadr has surprisingly stuck to the contention that the hostages should either be tried or freed without delay -- Mr. Farsi has said that the young embassy captors and "the masses" should determine policy. But he has offered no suggestion of what that policy should be.
There are other prominent presidential candidates -- including Foreign Minister Sadeq Ghotbzadeh and former naval commander Ahmad Madani.
But Iranian pundits (and some aides of the major candidates) suspect that Messrs. Ghotbzadeh and Madani are much more likely possibilities for the prime minister's slot, filled by presidential appointment.
Still, with no public opinion polls, nothing is certain. Even the amateur hypnotist, Shaban Tavoussi -- who, according to a Tehran newspaper, has vowed to put the country to sleep -- could conceivably end up president, although he probably would have to hypnotize the electorate before polling day to do so.
A street-side vendor seems to sum up much of Tehran's reaction to the early stages of the campaign. How do you like Mr. Bani- Sadr, this reporter asked. "Good," came the reply. And Mr. Madani? "He's good." Mr. Ghotbzadeh? "He's good, too."
And Mr. Farsi? The small, bearded man paused, then asked: "Who is Mr. Farsi?"