NEW YORK // The ayatollahs of Iran's Guardian Council have yet to decide who they will allow to contest the upcoming election to replace the divisive president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But an American citizen has already proclaimed himself the favourite.
"My chances are better than all of them," Hooshang Amirahmadi said emphatically as he sat in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel. "If they approve me, I am the next president of Iran."
Mr Amirahmadi, 65, speaks with the self-confidence of a seasoned politician, though he had never campaigned for office before declaring his candidacy last November. Since then he has addressed packed audiences at universities in the United States and Europe, and held fund-raising dinners in Dubai.
The problem, however, is that most Iranians inside Iran have never heard of him, and he has not lived in the country of his birth for nearly 40 years, well before the Islamic revolution. Iran observers unanimously dismiss his chances, saying his avowedly secular identity and the fact he is a dual citizen already make it nearly guaranteed that the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's Guardian Council will dismiss him.
"Nobody really knows him, the public at large doesn't know him, so it would be an impossible task to try to run for president," said Hooman Majd, a New York-based Iran observer and the author of two books on the country's politics.
Mr Majd said the council is also preoccupied with the question of which proven and popular pro-reform figure to allow to run, and also how to ensure that the elections are perceived as fair by both hardliners and moderates.
While many say the supreme leader controls important national decisions, Mr Majd said that the president can significantly influence them, as shown by Iran's suspension of nuclear enrichment during the reformist Mohammad Khatami's presidency and Mr Ahmadinejad's belligerence towards the West over the nuclear programme.
Despite the apparently overwhelming odds, Mr Amirahmadi scoffs at those who describe his run as quixotic.
"This is the nature of the low-level intellectuals of Iran. They just give you negative vibes."
He says he has been in contact with members of the council and that they, at least, take him very seriously.
This is because the situation in Iran is increasingly urgent, he says, and now is the time for a reformer from outside the system to quickly put Iran on the path back to internal stability as well as good relations with its Arabian Gulf neighbours and the international community.
"I am particularly concerned this time because Iran has come to a point where its problems either are resolved or the country can get much deeper into a disaster situation that will negatively impact everybody," he said. "Not just the Iranians but the outside world, particularly the region."
Mr Amirahmadi, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, also runs the American Iranian Council, a non-profit organisation that works on policy and improving US-Iran relations.
Mr Amirahmadi entered his name for consideration in the 2005 elections and was rejected by the Guardian Council - in what he said was only a symbolic act to protest the boycott of the polls by other reformists.
During Mr Ahmadinejad's tenure since then, Iran has lurched from crisis to crisis, most significantly the dispute with the West over its nuclear programme that has led to ever-tightening sanctions that have exacerbated the weaknesses and corruption in Iran's economy.
Rampant inflation and unemployment could be quickly eased by "technocratic and meritocratic" policies if he is elected, Mr Amirahmadi said. He considers himself "the Deng Xiaoping of Iran", and speaks of changing the country without challenging the Islamic framework of the ayatollahs.
The most serious internal problem is factional infighting, he added, which has become endemic and has made it impossible for the government to put in place a consistent economic plan or to finally mend the relationship with the US, which is worse today than it has ever been and is the key to solving Iran's other crises.
"If I become president, in the first 100 days I can solve the [US-Iran] problem altogether," Mr Amirahmadi said. "The biggest problem is the lack of trust, and I have trust on both sides and can bring them together."
Improving Iran's relations with the UAE and other GCC countries would also be a priority if he is elected, but this hinges on detente with the US. If that happens, he promises to "revamp Iran's foreign policy completely" and end support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad as well as scale back relations with Hizbollah.
"I would tell my Arab brothers, the money you are spending on weapons, give it to me and I'll put it in building industries … you will make money and we will come together," he said. "I would sign every kind of treaty under any obligation that Iran will never, ever have any offensive intentions towards any country."
But before he can put his lofty policy vision into practice, Mr Amirahmadi must deploy a political machine on the ground, and very quickly.
So far, a central part of his election strategy has been to energise the Iranian diaspora, which numbers 7 million people - the "31st Iranian province"- into a single vote bloc supporting him, .
His campaign team of two young Iranian-Americans has tried to follow the model of US President Barack Obama, and has created Facebook pages and even held an "ask me anything" forum on the popular Reddit website. Thousands signed in to ask Mr Amirahmadi questions, though most were not Iranian.
Mr Majd, the Iran observer, said that the community is as politically fractured and diverse as Iran itself, and he doubts many expatriates will vote at all. "If the campaign is meant to draw attention … to the fact that many Iranian-Americans would like to see better relations between Iran and the US, as would many Iranians in Iran, I think it's admirable," he said.
Far from being self-deluded, Mr Amirahmadi realises that he may not be allowed to run, but that has not dampened his enthusiasm for the undertaking and he is excited about the "modernising" effect it could have on Iranian politics.
He hopes his campaign will help the diaspora become more involved with their homeland's future. He also says his campaign will lay the groundwork for a new political force in Iran, a third way that seeks significant reform of the Islamic republic's system rather than its overthrow.
"Whether Hooshang Amirahmadi is president or not, [we will] have an organisation that will field candidates for the next parliament, for the local councils, for the next presidency," he said.
But he is not looking beyond this election quite yet, with another fundraising trip to Dubai this week before submitting his candidacy papers in Tehran. The Guardian Council will announce the vetted candidates in early May. Mr Amirahmadi expects to be included.
"In Iran, predicting has no value," he said. "Never predict Iran because you'll go out of business."