Recent comments by members Iran’s Guardians Council, the hard-line oversight body that vets all election candidates, have raised doubt that former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will be allowed to run in the June 14 presidential election.
Hard-liners loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei consider the 78-year-old Rafsanjani a serious threat because of his appeal to both reformists and conservatives.
They have criticized Rafsanjani for his age, his past criticism of the government’s 2009 postelection crackdown, and his personal wealth.
Even before he announced his surprise candidacy earlier this month, Khamenei loyalists had said that Rafsanjani should not run because of his advanced age.
Then, on May 20, Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodayi said candidates who are physically weak will not be allowed to stand in the vote.
"If an individual who plans to take up a high and executive post can only work a few hours per day, naturally he cannot be confirmed," Khadkhodayi said in an interview with Iran’s Al-Alam television channel.
Khadkhodayi did not mention Rafsanjani by name but his comments -- made just hours before the council is set to issue the final list of approved candidates -- were widely interpreted as a hint that the former president will be disqualified.
Indeed, there are rumors that Rafsanjani's candidacy has already been rejected.
The conservative Alef website, which is said to be affiliated with lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli, claimed that Rafsanjani is on the verge of disqualification.
"Alef has heard that the majority of the members of the Guardians Council believe that Rafsanjani is not qualified to run," the website said. "Of course, the report has not yet been officially confirmed."
Lawmaker Ali Motahari reacted to the increasing speculation by saying that Rafsanjani's disqualification would "bring the very principles of the Iranian establishment into question" because the former president played the "biggest role" in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, which mediates between parliament and the Guardians Council.
“If the [members] of the Guardians Council have made a final decision to disqualify Rafsanjani from running, they are playing a dangerous game, the end of which is not clear, and it is not in the interests of the establishment," Motahari told reporters.
Motahari, who campaigned for Rafsanjani to run, added that criticism of "some issues" by the former president should not lead to his disqualification.
And he appeared to suggest that Rafsanjani is fit enough to be president, asking, "How do they know that Rafsanjani doesn't have the physical strength to run the country?"
The Guardians Council’s comment is just the latest line of attack against Rafsanjani. In recent days, his automobile has also come in for scrutiny by hard-liners.
Last week, Guardians Council Chairman Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said Iran's next president should not drive a Mercedes.
Rafsanjani arrived to register for the June 14 vote in a blue Mercedes. A few hard-line websites immediately compared it to the subcompact Kia Pride in which another presidential hopeful, top nuclear negotiator Said Jalili, arrived at the same office.
Without naming the former president, Jannati told worshipers in a May 17 sermon that the next president should have a modest lifestyle and should not drive a Mercedes.
"He must lead a simple life," Jannati said. "He should start with himself -- if his clothing is simple, his house is simple, his furniture is simple, he can expect others to have a simple life. In other words, he can't go around in a Mercedes, have such a house and furniture, and expect people to live modestly."
Motahari criticized those comments
as an attempt at "demagoguery" and said he didn’t think Rafsanjani’s Mercedes was more expensive than Jannati’s Peugeot.
On May 20, he suggested that Ayatollah Khamenei could step in if Rafsanjani is being considered for disqualification.
"Even though the Guardians Council has the final vote, the leader could step in by issuing a state ruling," he told reporters.
The Guardians Council is set to present its list of candidates to the Interior Ministry on May 21. The ministry then has until May 23 to declare the final names.