DUBAI A conservative former parliament speaker dropped out of the June 14 Iranian presidential election on Monday in a move to consolidate the hardline vote and lessen the chances of an upset favoring a moderate candidate.
The 12-man Guardian Council, largely under the sway of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had already barred all but eight of the 686 people who registered as candidates, including pragmatic ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
That left four hardliners, separated only by small differences on issues such as Iran's nuclear stand-off with the West, facing a lone independent outsider and two relative moderates who may be able to generate popular support.
Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a close adviser to Khamenei related to him by marriage, had been one of three so-called "Principlist" conservative candidates alongside Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati before announcing on Monday he was dropping out.
While he did not endorse any single candidate, Haddad-Adel urged voters to back his fellow Principlists, hinting that they were the ones also backed by Khamenei.
The Shi'ite clerical leader, the most powerful man in the Islamic Republic, has not publicly endorsed any candidate and insists he has only one vote in the election.
"With my withdrawal I ask the dear people to strictly observe the criteria of the Supreme Leader of the Revolution (Khamenei) when they vote for candidates," Haddad-Adel said in a statement carried by the semi-official Mehr news agency.
"I advise the dear people to take a correct decision so that either a Principlist wins in the first round, or if the election runs to a second round, the competition be between two Principlists," he said.
Friday's presidential vote will be Iran's first since 2009 when the excitement generated by large reformist election rallies turned to anger and protests when incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared winner.
Reformers, after two landslide presidential election wins in 1997 and 2001, said the 2009 results were rigged. Fearing a repeat, many of their supporters could stay home this time.
The only remaining moderates in the presidential race are cleric Hassan Rohani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator under reformist president Mohamed Khatami, and the lackluster Mohammad Reza Aref.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Rohani has still managed to rouse thousands of supporters in sometimes heated election rallies at which some of the old reformist slogans were chanted, such as calls for political prisoners to be freed. Several Rohani staffers and supporters were arrested afterwards.
But, with sanctions imposed on Iran over its disputed nuclear program compounding problems of economic mismanagement and corruption, the big issue overriding ideology for many voters is which candidate can best rescue the oil-based economy from a slow, grinding collapse that some analysts predict.
NO MORE CANDIDATES BARRED
Mehr news agency, citing an unnamed source, said on Sunday the Guardian Council would consider barring Rohani from the election for revealing what it said was classified information on Iran's nuclear activity during a televised debate, and for the slogans uttered by his supporters.
But the Guardian Council said on Monday that it was not considering barring any other candidate, denying the reports.
While Rohani only smiled when reporters asked him about the report that his candidacy may be up for review, he may have grasped that failure to curb his faithful could lead to him removal from the race. The report might also discourage a much-rumored withdrawal by Aref that could widen a vote for Rohani.
With nuclear issue and foreign affairs and national security all decided by Khamenei, there will be little substantial departure from current policy whoever becomes president, but the result could usher in a change of nuance and style.
During a televised presidential debate on Friday, candidates clashed on Iran's nuclear policy, with nuclear negotiator and potential election front-runner Saeed Jalili coming under fire from rivals over the lack of progress in talks with world powers.
Rohani said hardline stances taken since his time as nuclear negotiator had resulted in several rounds of U.N. sanctions.
"All of our problems stem from this - that we didn't make an utmost effort to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from going to the (U.N.) Security Council," said Rohani, who in 2003 negotiated a suspension in uranium enrichment with world powers, winning a relative respite in Western pressure on Tehran.
Enrichment activity resumed after the hardline populist Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.
"It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running," Rohani said, referring to Iran's campaign to develop advanced nuclear technology despite its worsening economic problems.
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich)