Late next week, the Iranian Guardians Council will publish its list of approved candidates for the June 12 presidential elections. With an enthusiasm that dwarfs even Israel's over-abundance of political choice, hundreds upon hundreds of would-be presidents have registered to compete - close to 500 as of early this week; in the last such exercise in Iranian democracy, in 2005, 1,014 put down their names. But as with previous presidential votes, the likelihood is that the Guardians will slash the eligible number to fewer than a dozen. And as with the 2005 vote, the winner, it is being increasingly widely accepted, has actually been determined: The 52-year-old blacksmith's son from southeast of Teheran who already holds the post, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the man who wields real power in Iran - the man whose finger would be poised above an Iranian nuclear button - has made plain his preference in a series of utterances. Last summer, in what internal critics would do well not to claim amounted to gross intervention in the electoral process, Khamenei told the Ahmadinejad government to make "plans for the next five years." Warming to the theme on Tuesday, he defended Ahmadinejad against "untrue words" from other candidates regarding economic policies, and he urged his countrymen to "elect those who have popular support and who live in a simple, modest way." By "simple, modest," Khamenei unmistakably meant Ahmadinejad: Since his election in 2005, the former Teheran mayor has been assiduously depicted, in terms of personal propriety, as a kind of Iranian Bennie Begin - a man of modest means, used to driving a battered old Peugeot, with no money in the bank and no particular desire to amass any. Of more practical assistance as election day looms, the regime has ensured that Ahmadinejad's activities are taking emphatic pride of place in the Iranian media - in the best traditions of the neighboring monarchies and autocracies so familiar to us in Israel from our range of Arabic cable options. Iranian TV leads daily with the president's sojourn to this or that Iranian province, and the promises he so liberally distributes there of new infrastructure projects and the jobs they will bring. The other candidates barely get a look-in, beyond the under-read pages of the surviving "reformist" newspapers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, opinion polls are showing that support for the rival candidate who was thought to have had the best chance of unseating Ahmadinejad, former prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, is stagnating, while the incumbent is surging ahead. Not even the outrageous new assertion that his family has Jewish origins has hurt him. It's not that the votes won't be counted on election day, Israeli experts note. It's just that the result will have been manipulated. IRANIAN-BORN Menashe Amir, the Israel Radio veteran who has been broadcasting to Iran for half a century, reflects the analysts' consensus that Khamenei, who picked out Ahmadinejad to undo the limited reforms instituted by former president Muhammad Khatami, considers that job to still be only half done. "Under Khatami, there was a gradual opening of Iran to the world," notes Amir. "Ahmadinejad has been closing it down again." There is no Khatami-era tolerance for public protest, dissenting media outlets are silenced, hundreds of thousands of Internet sites are "filtered" and Internet speeds overall have been so slowed as to prevent the downloading of pictures and the maintenance of on-line discussions. To a large extent, therefore, the key message these elections can send to the outside world has already been delivered: It's not the president who controls the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It's not the president who runs the army. It's not the president who would decide to rethink Iran's nuclear strategy. Those are the prerogatives of the supreme leader. But by effectively endorsing Ahmadinejad, Khamenei is making abundantly clear that his Iran is not changing course. Israeli officials tend to stress that the other candidates are hardly Nelson Mandelas anyway. Indeed, one of the few who will likely make the Guardians Council cut is the notorious Mohsen Razaei, the former Revolutionary Guards commander who languishes on Interpol's most wanted list for his involvement in the 1994 bombing of the central Jewish community offices in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed. And given Ahmadinejad's insistently inflammatory rhetoric - on Holocaust denial, the need for Israel's disappearance, the imperative to remake the world order, and more - there is actually deemed to be some benefit from Israel's perspective in having him at Iran's public helm. Far better, of course, were Iran to be rethinking its direction. But since it is not, having the provocative Ahmadinejad in situ does make the danger posed by Iran somewhat harder to ignore. Nonetheless, the sorry fact is that Iran feels itself to be in the ascendant, and sees no compelling need to reconsider its orientation. The fact is that it is about to further bolster its influence in our region via Hizbullah's anticipated gains in the Lebanese parliamentary elections on June 7 - five days before the Iranian presidential vote - after which the Iranian proxy will almost certainly wield still greater influence without the inconvenience of overtly taking full power. The fact is that no candidate who diverges from Iran's we-will-go-nuclear strategy will get to run in next month's election. The fact is that the sanctions, to date, have been circumvented (including via a complex, vast apparatus of front companies) or absorbed. The fact is that almost four months have slipped by since President Barack Obama's inauguration, that the US has still not quite figured how it wants to engage with Iran, that any such engagement will take more months to formalize, and that there simply aren't very many months left. Set against all that, the fact that Iran's critics, with Israel at the forefront, will have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to emblemize the threat for another presidential term is extremely small comfort.