Although hard-liners were among those disqualified by the powerful Guardian Council, most of those rejected were reformist and moderate candidates, according to Tehran’s reformist newspaper Etemad.
President Hassan Rouhani appeared to confirm this in his stinging critique of the council, which barred more than 9,000 from the over 14,000 people who had registered to run. Among them are 90 sitting lawmakers out of some 247 who registered to run for re-election.
Rouhani said it is not possible to run the country with just one faction in power.
“Do not tell the people that for every seat in parliament, there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates running in the election,” he said in a televised speech to the Cabinet. “Seventeen-hundred candidates from how many factions? Seventeen candidates from how many parties? From one party? This is not an election.”
He compared it to a store placing 1,000 copies of the same item on its shelves and telling customers they have a diverse selection to pick from.
“People need diversity,” Rouhani said.
Guardian Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei criticized Rouhani’s remarks. In a tweet, he said that controversy around the vetting of candidates is nothing new, “but the president’s initiation of this anti-national project is regrettable.”
Kadkhodaei further quipped: “Of course, I did not know that the disqualification of relatives means omitting other factions.” Reportedly Rouhani’s son-in-law is among those barred from running.
In a statement released late Wednesday, the council criticized Rouhani’s remarks and said they were the result of a lack of understanding about the qualification process.
The Feb. 21 elections are seen as a test for the popularity of the relatively moderate and pro-reform bloc led by Rouhani, which has struggled to deliver on campaign promises to improve people’s lives as Iran’s economy buckles under the weight of U.S. economic sanctions.
President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran after he withdrew the U.S. from Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers — a deal that was championed and signed by Rouhani. Tensions with the United States could strengthen hard-liners by reinforcing long-held distrust of the West.
Tensions spiked further after a U.S. airstrike that killed Iran’s top general earlier this month led to a tense confrontation in which Iranian forces accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane after it took off from Tehran, killing 176 people. The shoot down, and attempts by officials to initially conceal the cause of the crash, sparked protests in Iran.
The Guardian Council says that most of the lawmakers who were barred from re-election were disqualified due to “financial problems,” a reference to embezzlement and corruption.
The council is comprised of senior clerics and legal experts, half of whom are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It vets candidates for office as well as legislation, and rules out individuals if it believes their views or behaviour are incompatible with the theocratic system.
Up for grabs will be 290 parliamentary seats. While the elected body serves as a place for debate and government scrutiny, the supreme leader has the final say on all major policies.