Iran’s former hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has been disqualified from running in Iran’s presidential elections next month, according to the final list of approved candidates announced on Thursday.
Iran’s interior ministry said that the guardian council – the group of influential jurists and clerics that vets all candidates – had approved six politicians to run, including the moderate incumbent, Hassan Rouhani.
Also on the list are Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of the country’s supreme leader; the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf; Rouhani’s first deputy, Eshaq Jahangiri; and relatively low-profile politicians Mostafa Agha Mirsalim and Mostafa Hashemi-Taba.
But the list excluded more than 1,600 other nominees who had applied to run for president, including all 137 female candidates – and Ahmadinejad.
The council’s decision marks a new nadir in the deteriorating relationship between the Iranian establishment and Ahmadinejad, whose controversial re-election in 2009 plunged the country into crisis.
Ahmadinejad’s exclusion means the presidential race will probably be a tight three-man race between Rouhani, Raisi and Ghalibaf. Jahangiri has already announced that his candidacy is tactical and that he intends to eventually drop out in favour of Rouhani. He is believed to have entered the race to help Rouhani to defend his legacy by buying more airtime in presidential debates and media opportunities.
Raisi’s surprise entry in the race earlier this month has threatened what many had expected would be a relatively straightforward bid by Rouhani for a second term. After rapidly rising in prominence over the past year, he is being touted as a possible successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Raisi and Ghalibaf originally belonged to a coalition of conservatives known as the Popular Front of Islamic Revolution Forces, or Jamna, which said only one candidate would ultimately run.
But both men have distanced themselves from the coalition and it is still not clear if either will pull out in favour of the other. Some analysts say a defeat would scupper Raisi’s chances of succeeding Khamenei and that he is therefore likely to drop out at the last minute.
Last week, Ahmadinejad surprised observers by registering to run in defiance of Khamenei who had told him to stay out of the race. He had kept the decision secret and had said that he was only accompanying his former deputy, Hamid Baghaei, to the registration office for the latter to put his name forward. While Baghaei was registering, Ahmadinejad stunned registration officials when he took his national ID out of his pocket and asked to apply.
Khamenei took Ahmadinejad’s side in the unrest in the aftermath of his re-election in 2009, but the relationship between the two grew fraught in the final years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.
He served two consecutive terms and oversaw a period of huge uncertainty amid international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme. He still enjoys a considerable fanbase in Iran, mainly among conservatives, which means his disqualification could cost the establishment dearly.
Commentators say Ahmadinejad and his inner circle, who had been sidelined under Rouhani, may have their eyes on the period after Khamenei, who underwent prostate surgery in 2014. His disqualification could help him regain some of his credibility among a large constituency critical of the Iranian establishment.
Ahmadinejad joins an expanding list of former Iranian presidents who have fallen foul of the establishment following their departure from office.
The reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, whose backing of Rouhani in 2013 was crucial in the current president’s election, also faces restrictions. Media is banned from using his name or images, although the restrictions appear to have been relaxed as the 19 May elections approach.
Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died earlier this year, was blocked from running in the 2013 presidential elections, and Abolhassan Banisadr, Iran’s first post-revolutionary president, currently lives in exile.
There were some angry social media reactions after Ahmadinejad’s exclusion. “Disqualifying candidates is illegal. If Ahmadinejad has committed a crime, why hasn’t been put on trial all these years?,” tweeted Iranian user @sahartwitt. “We are opposed to the disqualifications of the Guardian Council, it’s not right for the council to decide what the people are meant to decide.”
Iranian poet Fatemeh Shams wrote on her Facebook page: “[Ahmadinejad’s] eight years of presidency came at the cost of so much blood, imprisonment, house arrest and exile. It took the [supreme] leader a long time to come to the very same conclusion as that of the Green movement supporters in 2009. And the leaders of the Green movement [Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi] are still under house arrest after 6 years. What a dirty show.”