Iran clerical group supports diplomat Velayati as president

TEHERAN (AFP) - A leading Iranian conservative clerical group has endorsed veteran diplomat Ali Akbar Velayati to succeed Mr Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 14 presidential election, a media report said on Sunday.

The Mehr news agency said a majority of members of the Qom Seminary Scholars Association at a meeting on Saturday gave their support to Mr Velayati, quoting group chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former conservative head of the judiciary.

The association is one of the two leading conservative groups in the holy city of Qom, the clerical nerve-centre of Iran.

The other, the Combatant Clerics Association, has not yet endorsed one of the eight presidential candidates approved by the hardline electoral watchdog the Guardians Council.

There is also a Qom-based pro-reform clerical body, but it has not endorsed a candidate either.

Mr Velayati, a former foreign minister for 16 years, is currently senior foreign policy adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all key issues in the Islamic republic.

He pledges to repair strained relations with the international community if elected, and to shore up the struggling economy against Western economic sanctions imposed over Teheran's disputed nuclear drive.

Considered a frontrunner in the presidential race, Mr Velayati faces stiff competition from a number of candidates, including Iran's top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

In a live televised debate on Friday, Mr Velayati criticised Mr Jalili's failure to make progress in talks with world powers on Iran's atomic programme.

"The current negotiations that are under way are definitely flawed," said Mr Velayati, who says his diplomatic record will allow him to resolve the nuclear issue, by removing the sanctions and preserving Iran's nuclear "rights".

Mr Khamenei warned on Tuesday that the next president should avoid making concessions to the West. But he also insisted he will not throw his weight behind any candidate.

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