Conservative in a leather jacket

<strong>Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf</strong>, Mayor of Tehran

The mayoralty of Tehran was the springboard to the Iranian presidency for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and it could work the same way for his successor. Ahmadinejad ran Iran's chaotic capital for two years, curtailing many of the freedoms introduced by the reformist administration that preceded him, before he was elected president in June 2005. Now, Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf - the current mayor, a defeated candidate in the 2005 elections, and one of Ahmadinejad's greatest political rivals - has revived his ambitions for the presidential race of 12 June 2009.

The timing is critical. Despite clerical Schadenfreude at the west's financial misfortunes, Iran is facing its own crisis. Falling prices have hit its oil-dependent economy hard, unemployment is rising and inflation stands at almost 30 per cent. With elections approaching, Ahmadinejad, whose disdain for conventional economics is well known, is vulnerable. Could a Qalibaf-led Iran, in partnership with Barack Obama's new administration, restore international confidence in the country's economy and thaw the antagonism that marked the Bush-Ahmadinejad years?

In personal style at least, Qalibaf, a 47-year-old academic, politician and former police chief, is the suave antithesis of the current president. Where Ahmadinejad launches intemperate attacks on Israel and the west, and lavishes oil revenues on short-term, populist "charitable" schemes, Qalibaf is diplomatic and fiscally prudent. While Ahmadinejad's rough-and-ready manner is the despair of Iran's urban elite, Qalibaf has gone out of his way to court them. He is pro-foreign investment and pro-dialogue: with his assertion that Iran "doesn't need" nuclear weapons, he would likely prove a more reasonable and congenial negotiating partner for the west.

The rivals' backgrounds are very different. Unlike the president, who spent years as a minor bureaucrat, Qalibaf has a highly polished CV. In his early twenties, he became a high-level Revolutionary Guard commander in the war against Iraq, then the general in charge of the Revolutionary Guard air force. After the war, he studied for a PhD in political geography and, in 1999, was named head of the Iranian law-enforcement agency NAJA. As a police chief, Qalibaf opened up the force to include female recruits and gained a reputation for dealing less severely with students and dissidents than his brutal predecessors, whose mishandling of widespread public protests in 1999 had led to his own appointment.

Standing as a centrist presidential candidate in 2005, Qalibaf came fourth in an election that ended in a run-off between Ahmadinejad and the moderate ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Shortly afterwards, he secured Ahmadinejad's old job as mayor of Tehran and set about consolidating his reputation for efficiency and pragmatism. In contrast to the former mayor, who has a fondness for schemes such as separate elevators for men and women, he has devoted his time to major infrastructure projects and to popular initiatives: building cinemas and football pitches, improving Tehran's bus network and waste collection.

It is possible that, in a national election, these urban credentials could work against him. In 2005, Ahmadinejad was able to secure the hardline rural, veteran and Basij (Islamic paramilitary) votes that eluded his opponent. Even the mayor's groomed and leather-jacketed appearance may alienate conservatives and less affluent provincial voters, who prefer clerical robes or a more sober revolutionary style. But Qalibaf is no liberal. He describes himself as an "authoritarian moderniser" and is close to Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, whose willingness to grant him private audiences helped secure his re-election as mayor in 2007.

The rivals spent 2008 trying to outmanoeuvre each other. Last January, Qalibaf used a visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos to hint at criticisms of Ahmadinejad, build relations with other leaders and underline his openness to the international community. In July, the president banned an edition of Hamshahri, a newspaper owned by the Tehran municipality, for linking him to Iran's economic problems. Recently, presidential supporters have accused the mayor of fanning rumours that Ahmadinejad's failing health could prevent him running for a second term.

So far, the only officially declared candidate is Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist former speaker of the Majlis, the national parliament. Apart from Ahmadinejad, Qalibaf is likely to face, on the moderate side, the former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the former president Mohammad Khatami; and on his own, conservative side, another former speaker, Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. But the scattered and weakened reformists are unlikely to do well; in Iran the battle is between the conservatives. If Qalibaf's small concessions to the outside world carry the day, we will hear fewer inflammatory insults - such as Ahmadinejad's dismissal of Israel as a "dirty microbe". As the mayor puts it: "We can talk to the world in much better ways." If confrontation with Iran is to be avoided, a man prepared to initiate conversation with the west could be a good start.

Rachel Aspden is a contributing editor of the New Statesman