TEHRAN, Iran — Hard-line Iranian lawmakers have petitioned authorities to bar two prominent presidential contenders – a moderate former president and a protege of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – from running in next month's election in a further sign of intense political jockeying over the final ballot list.
The Tuesday appeal by nearly 100 parliament members reflects worries over the potential election-swaying influence of ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a close confident of Ahmadinejad. Both could pull votes from two different directions – Rafsanjani appealing to reformists and Mashaei favored by Ahmadinejad's backers – and shift attention away from other potential front-runners with close ties to the ruling clerics.
Mashaei faces an uphill battle to get his name on the June 14 ballot because of Ahmadinejad's political feuds with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Rafsanjani, however, is perhaps too venerable to be rejected by the election overseers known as the Guardian Council, which vets all candidates and is expected to announce the ballot list next week.
Several Iranian news websites have reported that Rafsanjani has been approved, but Mashaei has not. The reports, which could not be independently verified, also said the Guardian Council cleared several other candidates with close ties to the ruling theocracy.
"These are unofficial reports. We don't confirm any of them," Guardian Council spokesman Abass Ali Kadkhodaei was quoted by conservative news website, tasnimnews.com, as saying Wednesday.
In a pre-emptive move, the pro-establishment lawmakers – accounting for more than a third of the 290-seat parliament – appealed to the Guardian Council to knock both from the election race.
One of the lawmakers, Javad Karimi Qodoosi, said they want Rafsanjani barred for supporting the opposition in the disputed 2009 vote and Mashaei disqualified for his alleged un-Islamic attitudes.
Hard-liners have accused Mashaei as being the leader of a "deviant current" that seeks to undermine Islamic rule. Some critics have even claimed he conjured black magic spells to fog Ahmadinejad's mind.
Ahmadinejad can't run due to term limits under Iran's constitution, so he is seeking one of his loyalists to succeed him.
Rafsanjani, meanwhile, has emerged as the best hope for pro-reform voters and liberals, who have faced relentless crackdowns since protests over alleged voter fraud in Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009. Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989-97, was seen as siding with Mir Hossein Mousavi, whose supporters claim was the rightful winner.
Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, Faezeh, was released from jail in March after serving a six-month sentence in connection with the post-election chaos. His middle son, Mahdi, also is to stand trial in coming weeks for his alleged role in the riots, which marked the worst domestic upheavals in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Critics of Rafsanjani also note the outlawed Islamic Iran Participation Front, once Iran's biggest reformist party, now has thrown its full support behind him.
The entry of Rafsanjani and Mashaei has changed Iran's election equation, raising a tough challenge to conservative candidates loyal to Khamenei.
Four major candidates are in the list that hard-liners support. They include top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili; a former foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati; Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf; and prominent lawmaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.
The deeply divided hard-line camp is also facing the tough challenge of unifying around one of the four hopefuls.
"The role of those (Rafsanjani) who signed up ... in managing the sedition is not hidden to anyone," the petition said in reference to 2009 post-election riots, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency. "His support for opponents of the system shows that the position of the president can't be delegated to him."
Rafsanjani has called for easing tensions with the outside world – in open contrast to Ahmadinejad's bombastic style – and improving the economy battered by sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
But Ahmadinejad has thrown his full support behind Mashaei, saying "Mashaei means Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei."
In return, Mashaei has vowed to continue Ahmadinejad-era policies of generous government handouts despite opponents who claim they have worsened Iran's economy, which is already under severe strain from international sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.
Khamenei, the supreme leader, has not given any public hints on the candidate he favors, but close advisers such as Velayati and Jalili are likely to have strong backing from the ruling clerics.
In a speech at his residence in Tehran, Khamenei urged Iranians to go to the polling stations next month in great numbers to "disappoint the enemy" – a reference to the U.S. and its allies – and elect a president who will be "a man of resistance."
"The enemy, while working for a lackluster vote, seeks a person who ... will take Iran toward dependence, weakness and backwardness," he said.
Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad urged the Guardian Council to allow all competing factions be represented in the vote.
"All tendencies should be represented in the election so that the nation can make it choice," he said.
Asked what he will do if Mashaei is disqualified, Ahmadinejad made a quip that alluded to Mashaei's political "long live spring" slogan.
"What good weather today," smiled Ahmadinejad. "It's one of the best spring days."