TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's election overseers said Monday they will bar candidates who are physically weak from running in next month's presidential election, a reference to a former leader seen as a threat to hard-liners.
Ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's entry in the race scrambled the equations because of his popularity, reputation and potential to draw voters away from conservatives.
Rafsanjani is 78. Opponents claim that he is too old to run the country, and the body that must decide who can run in the June 14 election indicated it agrees – as a way of removing the threat to Iran's hard-liners.
Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, spokesman of the Guardian Council that vets election candidates, said the council won't allow candidates who are limited in their physical abilities.
"If a person is able to work only few hours a day, it's natural that he can't be approved," Kadkhodaei was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying Monday.
He didn't name any of the candidates, but it was a clear reference to Rafsanjani.
The council is expected to release its list of approved candidates on Tuesday.
The unexpected entry of Rafsanjani into the race has cut into chances of victory for a candidate loyal to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the June 14 vote.
There is also widespread speculation in Iranian media that Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's close confidant, will be barred from running.
Ahmadinejad cannot run for another term as president according to term limits under Iran's constitution. Instead, he has been trying to ensure that a loyalist succeeds him.
Ahmadinejad has openly backed Mashaei, saying "Mashaei means Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei."
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.
More than 100 lawmakers have petitioned the council to bar both Rafsanjani and Mashaei from the vote.
Given Mashaei's role in a messy power struggle between Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics, he is likely to be barred, but Rafsanjani is seen as too respected to be disqualified.
Rafsanjani is a founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution that brought the clerics to power. He was the closest confident of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the 1979 revolution. Even Khamenei largely owes his position to Rafsanjani's support.
"If it happens (Rafsanjani is disqualified), the foundation of the ruling system would be brought into question," conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari, who supports Rafsanjani, was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news Monday.
But a headline on a conservative news website, alef.ir, read, "Rafsanjani on the verge of being disqualified."
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Guardian Council, warned Friday that those who did not distance themselves from 2009 riots 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 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.
"A man who wants to sit in the president's chair must make his position clear. If he approves the 2009 sedition, he is a seditionist. If he is against it, then he must condemn it," Jannati told worshippers Friday. His comments were perceived as a reference to Rafsanjani.
Political analyst Saeed Leilaz said the organized campaign to discredit Rafsanjani reflects hard-liner concerns over his electoral strength.
"They are shouting because their candidates can't beat Rafsanjani. If Rafsanjani is weak and doesn't enjoy popular support, why are they so angry?" he said.