TEHERAN, Iran (AFP) - President Hassan Rouhani was among six candidates approved on Thursday (April 20) by Iran's conservative-dominated Guardian Council to run in next month's election while former leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was barred, state media reported.
The other candidates selected were hardliners Ebrahim Raisi and Mostafa Mirsalim, Teheran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, veteran politician Mostafa Hashemitaba and Rouhani's ally and vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri.
Former hardline president Ahmadinejad, who ruled from 2005 to 2013, was barred along with his close ally Hamid Baghaie.
Ahmadinejad shocked everyone by registering as a candidate last week against the advice of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - a move which many described as political suicide.
More than 1,600 candidates registered to run in the May 19 election, but the Guardian Council only ever selects around half a dozen.
More than 130 women registered but none has ever been allowed to stand.
Although campaigning was not due to start until April 28, the Guardian Council announced that it could begin immediately.
Rouhani, a politically moderate cleric, has won praise since his landslide win in 2013 for taming inflation and reaching a groundbreaking nuclear deal with world powers that ended many sanctions.
But disappointment over Iran's continued economic stagnation is palpable on the streets, creating an opening for conservative opponents, with judicial cleric Raisi considered by many to be their frontrunner.
Unemployment is stuck at 12 per cent, the promised billions in foreign investment have not materialised, and Rouhani has failed to release political prisoners, including reformist leaders under house arrest for their part in 2009 protests.
The aggressive stance of US President Donald Trump, who has slapped new sanctions on Iran and threatened to tear up the nuclear deal, has bolstered conservative claims that Rouhani was duped by the West.
The conservatives are more divided, but Raisi has garnered considerable momentum.
The 56-year-old judge, who currently runs the powerful charity-cum-business-empire Astan Qods Razavi, has emphasised his concern for the poor and is seen as a close ally of - and possible successor to - supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Teheran mayor Ghalibaf, who came second to Rouhani in 2013, is also considered a front-runner.
NO LIVE DEBATES
The 55-year-old is a war veteran, former Revolutionary Guards commander and police chief, and considered a staunch conservative.
He has focused his early comments on the economy, saying he would create five million jobs and more than double Iran's revenues, although such promises have been ridiculed as wildly unrealistic by reformist opponents.
Mirsalim has been a central figure in the mainstream conservative movement for years, but has not seen much of the spotlight during this election season.
Hashemitaba is a veteran politician, having served variously as an industry minister, vice-president and head of physical education through several administrations since the 1980s, though he has barely figured in local coverage of the election so far.
Rouhani has been hit by the loss of a key backer in recent months: heavyweight former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who passed away in January, played a central role in his surprising landslide victory in 2013.
But crucially, Rouhani retains the unified support of moderates and reformists, who still see him as the best hope for change within the strict parameters of Iran's Islamic system.
Jahangiri said he was only standing in the election to support Rouhani during the campaign and in TV debates, saying last week that he stood "side-by-side" with the president.
Iran's interior ministry said Thursday there would be no live debates in the run-up to next month's vote.