What will Iran look like without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president?

After his two consecutive and erratic terms — nearly a decade in power — it's a challenge to imagine.

Not for the 686 candidates who have registered in the race to replace him, mind you.

But when the unelected Guardian Council distills the field considerably later this week (ultimately on behalf of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), only a handful will be deemed worthy of actually putting their vision to the electorate in the coming weeks.

There are some certainties to be expected of those who make the shortlist: the next president will be no renegade reformist, no opposition figure, and will be loyal to the Islamic Revolution and the ayatollah.

We also know the next president won't be a woman. The Guardian Council put that debate to rest on Friday when it declared (again) that women are barred from running for president.

That disqualified the 30 female candidates who had registered to run in the June 14 election. Though there is still one who operates outside these rules and her campaign, in fact, seems to only gain momentum.

Unveiling a brashly reformist platform rooted in human rights, 52-year-old Zahra declared her candidacy earlier this month.

More precisely, the Zahra-for-President campaign was launched on her behalf by a reformist, U.S.-based group called United4Iran, because Zahra is a virtual contender, a fictional character-candidate who exists only as a form of protest in print and online — to stand in opposition to Iran's stringent political and electoral systems.

Zahra's world

"The only way you can change the status quo is if you have the power to imagine a better future," says Amir Soltani, activist and author of Zahra's Paradise, the hugely popular graphic novel where Zahra's persona was shaped before she delved into contemporary politics.

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Zahra announces her candidacy for the Iranian presidency on vote4zahra.org (vote4zara.org)

In that virtual world, Zahra is a teacher, poet and mother of a young man killed in the protests that followed the 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad, when the reformist Green Movement was stymied at the polls and its leader put under house arrest.

"So Zahra ultimately is about us Iranians having the power to dream of a future where we don't have to bury our … sons."

Zahra's presidential bid — depicted in twice-weekly updates about her quest for democracy and equality (vote4zahra.org) is gathering support around the world.

It is also providing an avenue for protest to those whose hopes for change were crushed in the 2009 elections.

What is always supposed to be a carefully orchestrated contest in Iran was upended in 2009 when two of the candidates challenged the status quo, and in doing so galvanized scores of (mostly) youth into engaging in the political process.

"Something is happening in Iran. Something so unexpected, some here are daring to call it a revolution." That was the opening line to our CBC News piece on the exuberant election campaign in Iran four years ago.

Thousands of young people were being drawn to rallies and debates, many of them wearing green ribbons to show support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate whose supporters seemed certain would be the next president.

But within hours of the polls closing, Ahmadinejad was declared the winner (with just over 60 per cent of the vote). His opponents cried foul and hit the streets to protest.

Boycott the vote?

Among those in Tehran's streets in those days was Mahdi Akhtari, who had worked on Mousavi's campaign.

"My feeling was like somebody stole something from me, and that was my vote," he said in an interview last week.

The Iranian establishment at the time denied the election had been tampered with. And in a CBC interview, Ahmadinejad's close adviser, vice-president Esfandiar Mashaei, insisted there was nothing remotely akin to a new revolution in the making.

The demonstrations continued for weeks despite a nasty crackdown — arrests, beatings, even bullets, until the Green Movement was shut down, its members either in prison, cowed into silence, or bullied out of the country.

Mousavi was placed under house arrest (where he remains to this day).

Akhtari paid $7,000 to be smuggled out of Iran and claimed asylum in the U.K. after finding out that he was wanted by Iranian intelligence.

Though now a refugee far from home, he still plays a role by using Twitter and Facebook to talk to young people.

Last time he was encouraging them to vote. Today, he's urging them to boycott.

It's been "35 years of cheating the people in elections," he says, adding, this time is not going to be any different.

Still competition

Still, to some extent anyway, this election has already become somewhat unpredictable.

The last-minute registration of the 79-year-old former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — an establishment stalwart yet favoured by reformists —surprised many.

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Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president with at least some reformist credentials, has again thrown his hat in the ring. (Reuters)

Until then, the names that dominated were those of the nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a conservative regime loyalist, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran and a former chief of the ultra-loyalist Revolutionary Guard.

There is also a side competition brewing between the traditionalists and a younger generation of hardliners, notes Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington.

And Iran's decision makers will be watching these candidates carefully before they make a decision on whom they will support. As such, she adds, the campaign still matters.

"It is not real democracy, not by any stretch of the imagination," she said in an interview. "But it is a competition, and it is reflective of shifting political trends within society."

Much of Iran's electorate is clearly seized by the ailing economy and unemployment, brought on partly because of Western sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Those concerns alone will motivate many Iranians to go to the polls.

For the establishment clerics, however, the election is also very much about the survival of the system born in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Their biggest conundrum may not the opposition per se, but the younger generation of hardliners, represented at the last minute by none other than Mashaei, loathed by the establishment, but Ahmadinejad's clearly preferred successor.

Ahmadinejad, who has reached his two-term limit, seems to want to keep a hand in the presidency despite his imminent departure.

"There is real concern about what it is that Ahmadinejad is capable of doing," if Mashaei is rejected as a candidate or loses the election, says Maloney.

Yet none of that matters much to those alienated by the system, according to Akhtari, as well as Soltani and his fellow activists, who describe the entire exercise as "a farce."

What they're doing with Zahra, Soltani says, is "countering fiction with fiction.

"What the average Iranian is being presented is really a series of false choices," he says. "The Iranian people deserve a much better future."