By disqualifying many prominent moderates and reformers, Iran's ruling clerics are being accused of paving the way for hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi to succeed President Hassan Rohani in the upcoming presidential vote.
Most notably not on the list of seven presidential candidates approved by the powerful Guardians Council was the man many think would be Raisi's most serious rival -- former parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Well known in Iran, Larijani has held several key posts in government.
Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri, who was considered the leading candidate of the reformists, will also not be allowed to run in the June 18 presidential election.
The vote is being held amid discontent over the ailing economy -- crippled by U.S. sanctions -- and nuclear talks aimed at reviving the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that significantly limited Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of many sanctions.
Two Unknown Moderates
Of the men selected to run by the hard-line council, only two are considered moderate -- Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemmati and former Vice President for Sports Mohsen Mehralizadeh. But they are virtually unknown to most Iranians.
The others on the short list of candidates are Mohsen Rezai, Saeed Jalili, Amirhossein Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, and Alireza Zakani.
But some of those hard-liners are expected to quit the race in favor of Raisi. Like previous elections, all 40 women who registered in the hope of being a candidate were disqualified.
Analysts say the somewhat surprising decision by the Guardians Council to severely limit the voters' choices for president suggests the establishment is determined to guarantee a win for Raisi, who has also been tipped as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 82 years old.
Raisi, 61, was defeated in the 2017 election in which many people say they voted for Rohani in order to prevent the cleric -- who is linked to the horrific 1980s massacre of thousands of political prisoners -- from becoming president.
Outcome More Important Than Turnout?
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the International Crisis Group think tank, says the council's ruling proves that the clerical regime cares more about the outcome of the election than the turnout, which Iranian leaders have previously used to claim legitimacy.
"The leadership is throwing the system's republican features out the window to ensure that the supreme leader's succession goes according to plan," Vaez told RFE/RL. "At a time when the country faces a multitude of crises and the system's legitimacy is vanishing, the deep state has decided to close down, rather than open up, the political sphere," he added.
"This mirrors the decision that the shah made by creating a single-party political system a few years before his downfall," he said, in reference to Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's 1975 decision to declare Iran a one-party state.
The Establishment's 'Shrinking Inner Circle'
Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a scholar affiliated with the Free University of Berlin, says the decision to favor like-minded candidates is "a sign of a further shrinking of the ruling class's inner circle."
"It seems the hard-liners' plan to fully monopolize power in their hands very much overshadows any desire to present elections in the Islamic republic as a kind of legitimacy index for the system," Fathollah-Nejad told RFE/RL.
He notes that the disqualification of Larijani, who had in recent years come under attack by hard-liners for siding with Rohani, speaks volumes. Larijani had recently become active on social media, including on Clubhouse, where he answered questions by Iranians inside and outside the country. Some people asked tough questions about his past actions.
"His quite recent social-media and media offensive, in which he seemed to mimic the Rohani campaigns in the past, suggested that a bipolar race between Raisi and him will be taking place," Fathollah-Nejad said.
Appeal For Khamenei To Intervene
Rohani said on May 26 that he had urged Khamenei to help reverse the disqualifications, saying that "the heart of elections is competition -- if you take that away it becomes a corpse." But he added that "in the end, whatever he sees fit is fine."
Rohani, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, said Iranians should not feel left out of the decision-making process. "People should be able to decide for themselves [who will be president]," he said, adding that "the legitimacy of the [clerical] system depends on the presence of the people at the ballot boxes."
Many criticized the council's decision, including a current member, former judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Amoli Larijani, Ali Larijani's brother. "I have never found the council's decisions to be so indefensible, whether in approvals or disqualifications," Amoli Larijani said on Twitter, which is banned in Iran but routinely used by officials.
Raisi said on May 25 that he had contacted the authorities to ask them to reconsider the decision to bar some of the candidates. "I have made contacts and I am holding consultations to make the election scene more competitive and participatory," Raisi said in the video, in which he was wearing a face mask that only covered his mouth.
Low Turnout Expected
Political analyst Saeed Barzin says the extreme vetting -- some 590 people applied to run for president -- is likely to diminish the turnout, which was expected to be low even before the final list of candidates was published on May 25.
A low turnout would be a further blow to the government, which has been hit by mass protests in recent years, including in November 2019, when several hundred people were killed in a brutal crackdown by the state.
"This will, without any doubt, decrease participation unless Khamenei issues a state order to allow some of those disqualified to run," Barzin told RFE/RL's Radio Farda, adding that potential voters will see themselves as mere "spectators."
Raisi, Raisi, Or Raisi?
Many Iranians mocked the upcoming vote on social media by posting jokes and memes, including an image where seven Raisis were seen debating each other in the televised discussions that Iran holds ahead of its presidential elections.
"Between Raisi, Raisi, and Raisi, whom should I vote for?" a woman tweeted, adding that the choice was "difficult."
Among those prevented from running is outspoken reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, who after not making the cut blasted the Guardians Council for "violating the rights of the nation," adding that the body had moved from vote "engineering" to "appointments."
Former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was also prevented from running. He had previously said that if barred, he would not vote in the election or give his support to any candidate. The controversial Ahmadinejad was also barred from running in the 2017 election.