TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranian news websites boosted speculation Tuesday that election overseers have barred two prominent but divisive figures from next month's presidential ballot, in a move that would eliminate a threat to the country's hard-liners.
The Tasnimnews.com website said the Guardian Council, which vets candidates, has rejected former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close confidant of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The semiofficial Mehr news agency carried the same report.
Mehr said only eight hopefuls, most of them hardliners loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have been approved. The reports are not official. The announcement on the list for the June 14 election is expected later Tuesday or Wednesday.
Rafsanjani's unexpected entry into the presidential race had re-energized reformist groups that have been under relentless pressure and crackdowns since major protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. His candidacy scrambled the vote's equation because of his popularity, reputation and potential to draw voters away from conservatives
If he is indeed barred from the race, it would deal a demoralizing blow to pro-reform groups and dim hopes for a high turnout. It also would boost the chances of a Khamenei loyalist winning the election.
The Iranian media didn't provide any reason for disqualifying Rafsanjani, but his opponents have claimed that at the age of 78, he is too old to run the country.
On Monday, Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman for the Guardian Council that vets election candidates, said the council would bar candidates who are limited in their physical abilities, which was widely seen as a jab at Rafsanjani.
Rafsanjani is a founder of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the clerics to power, and was the closest confident of the revolution's spiritual leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The country's current supreme leader, Khamenei, largely owes his position to Rafsanjani's support.
The head of the Guardian Council, 87-year-old Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, warned Friday that those who did not distance themselves from 2009 turmoil were not eligible to run, referring to the popular protests over the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad as "sedition."
It was another hint that Rafsanjani, who is viewed as a serious threat to hardliners, could be banned.
A government crackdown in 2009 put an end to street protests, but Rafsanjani remained critical over the way the ruling system dealt with the crisis.
Mashaei's purported disqualification, meanwhile, is a serious blow to Ahmadinejad, depriving him of levers of power with which to influence the next government. Ahmadinejad cannot run in this election because Iran's constitution bars him from seeking a third term.
Ahmadinejad has been promoting Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president's son, as successor in recent years. But Mashaei is believed to have been at the heart of a messy power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics in recent years, earning him the enmity of Iran's hard-liners.
Hard-liners accuse Mashaei of being the leader of a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine Islamic rule and compromise the Islamic system. Some critics have even claimed he conjured black magic spells to fog Ahmadinejad's mind.
According to the unofficial news reports, among those approved for the June ballot are Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati and Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf — all top Khamenei loyalists. Former chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaei and a little known former minister have also reportedly been approved.
Of eight, only two of them are pro-reform figures: Former top nuclear negotiator Hasan Rowhani and former first vice president Mohammad Reza Aref.
Reformers now have the option of rallying behind Aref or Rowhani or boycott the polls altogether.