Iran's election overseers removed potential wild-card candidates from the presidential race Tuesday, blocking a top aide of outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and a former president who revived hopes of reformers.
Their exclusion from the June 14 presidential ballot gives establishment-friendly candidates a clear path to succeed Ahmadinejad, who has lost favor with the ruling clerics after years of power struggles. It also pushes moderate and opposition voices further to the margins as Iran's leadership faces critical challenges such as international sanctions and talks with world powers over Tehran's nuclear program.
The official ballot list, announced on state TV, followed a nearly six-hour delay in which the names were kept under wraps. That raised speculation that authorities allowed some time for appeals by the blackballed candidates and their backers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say in all matters.
But the official slate left off two prominent but divisive figures: former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad protege Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. The decision also appeared to remove many potential surprise elements in the race, including whether Rafsanjani could revitalize the reform movement or if Ahmadinejad could play a godfather role in the election with his hand-picked political heir.
Instead, the eight men cleared by the candidate-vetting Guardian Council included high-profile figures considered firm and predictable loyalists to the ruling Islamic establishment, such as former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili.
Just one approved candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, might draw some moderate appeal because of his role as vice president under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.
The rest of the choices, at the very least, would create a possibly seamless front between the ruling clerics and presidency after years of political turmoil under Ahmadinejad, who tried to challenge the theocracy's vast powers to make all major decisions and set key policies. Iran's presidency, meanwhile, is expected to convey the ruling clerics' views on the world stage and not set its own diplomatic agenda.
Mashaei called the decision unfair and said he will appeal to Khamenei. "God willing this will be resolved," semiofficial Fars news agency reported late Tuesday.
Rafsanjani did not comment, but his supporters denounced the decision on social media.
While the election is not expected to bring major shifts in Iran's position on its nuclear program — which Tehran insists is peaceful despite Western fears it could lead to atomic weapons — it could open opportunities to renew stalled talks with a six-nation group that includes the U.S.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said Iran's nuclear stance will "not change either before or after the election."
The ballot rejection of Mashaei brought little shock.
He has been badly tarnished by Ahmadinejad's feuds with the ruling clerics. Hard-liners have denounced Mashaei as part of a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine the country's Islamic system — which made ballot approval highly unlikely.
This leaves Ahmadinejad politically orphaned going into the final weeks in office. He still has significant public support and could try to bargain with other candidates or break away and start his own political movement.
Few powerful voices came to Mashaei's defense in a sign of Ahmadinejad's fallen fortunes. But the case for Rafsanjani was more complicated.
His unexpected decision for a comeback bid — 16 years after leaving office — jolted hard-line foes and was cheered by beleaguered reformists and liberals after years of crackdowns.
Rafsanjani faced a barrage of attacks in the past week from powerful critics who suggested the 78-year-old does not have the stamina for the presidency and is disgraced for criticizing the heavy-handed tactics used to crush protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, Faezeh, was released from jail in March after serving a six-month sentence in connection with the postelection chaos. His middle son, Mahdi, also is to stand trial in coming weeks for his alleged role in the riots.
Late Monday, authorities closed down the Tehran headquarters of Rafsanjani's youth supporters.
But Rafsanjani still carries a legacy with a sweeping reach.
Moderates see him as a pragmatist who can deal deftly with the West and use his skills as patriarch of a family-run business empire to help repair Iran's economy, battered by sanctions and mismanagement. Others, even ideological foes, respect his high-profile role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution as the closest confidant of its spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
In a sign of possible lobbying on Rafsanjani's behalf, he received apparent support from some influential members of the Assembly of Experts — the only group with the power to dismiss the supreme leader. Rafsanjani was pushed out as the group's chairman after failing to get enough support to leverage possible concessions from Khamenei on the 2009 postelection clampdowns.
One member, Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, sent a letter to Khamenei saying "omitting a prominent figure from the election was incompatible" with giving wide choices to voters, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported.
Another assembly member, Ayatollah Mohammad Vaez Mousavi, told the semiofficial ILNA news agency that Rafsanjani's age is not a weak point and many Iranian leaders "accepted responsibilities when they were quite old."
Prominent political analyst Saeed Leilaz said the "intensified defamation campaign" suggested worry among hard-liners that Rafsanjani had a real potential to rally moderates and others and win the election.
"What matters today is who can save the country's economy," he said, "Who has a plan to take Iran away from isolation and improve living conditions."