Reading the tea leaves around election time in Iran is always dicey. Truth be told, nobody knows how the cards will fall.
The presidential elections, once the hundreds of candidates are vetted and narrowed down to the Supreme Leader's top eight (now six), are actually pretty legit by regional standards. Eight years ago, while I was covering the election for the Council on Foreign Relations' website, nobody outside of Tehran had even heard of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was such a dark horse candidate, we only included his name in our election preview as an afterthought. Four years later, as a journalist based in the region, I remember thinking that the Iran elections would be a sleepy and predictable affair, and so I headed to Beirut in expectation of post-election violence. As it turned out, Hezbollah accepted its loss with barely a peep, and the Green Movement took to the streets of Tehran, giving the Islamic Republic's regime its biggest scare since 1979.
This time around, expect the opposition to protest silently. Many of its leaders have been jailed or exiled abroad. Nor does the reform or Green Movement have a legitimate candidate running. There is nobody like Mustafa Moin or Mir Hussein Mousavi on the slate of candidates this time around. The only semi-moderate candidate is Hassan Rowhani whose chances are slim (another reform candidate just dropped out of the race).
Hence, the likely winner will be a conservative. The only question is whether it will be hardliner such as Saeed Jalili or a more traditional conservative (though a slightly cagey and cameleon-like character) such as Mohammad Qalibaf. He was an also-ran in 2005 whose campaign slogan, among others, was "we are not a nation of camel riders." He also is unpopular among Iran's younger voters who remember him for his crackdown of student demonstrations in 1999 (he is a former Revolutionary Guards commander and current mayor of Tehran).
It's anybody's guess, though I give a slight edge to Qalibaf. The reason is that to vote for Jalili is to endorse the religous fundamentalism of the Supreme Leader's current policies and my take on Iran is that many of its citizens would like a more able manager (which Qalibaf is) and somebody will to challenge Iran's clerics rather than rubber-stamp their edicts. As CFR's Ray Takeyh has pointed out, he has presented himself as all things to all Iranians, which may turn off some voters.
One thing for certain: Do not expect much change in Iran's orientation on foreign policy, whether with respects to Syria or its nuclear negotiations. The president in Iran holds little power on this front. Nor have any of the candidates suggested major departures from the status quo. Iranians, like Americans last year, are mostly voting for domestic pocketbook issues. The only question (and suspense) is how conservative the eventual winner will turn out to be, and how many Iranians will actually turn out to vote.