President Ahmadinejad has fallen out with the clerics.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday he does not favour any candidate for June’s presidential election, although hard-liners with outlooks similar to his dominate the field.
The field of candidates was narrowed considerably last week when the Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists that vets all candidates, disqualified two independent contenders.
Those disqualified include former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close aide of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Reformists, who ran in the last election four years ago, have been largely excluded this time, with the leaders of the “Green movement”, that protested against what they said was a rigged result, under unofficial house arrest for more than the last two years.
Analysts say Mr. Khamenei is intent on seeing a loyal and docile candidate enter office after the unrest that followed the 2009 election.
Though he initially had Mr. Khamenei’s backing, President Ahmadinejad challenged the supreme leader throughout his second term and has lost favour with the conservative establishment. Mr. Khamenei said on Wednesday that any notion that he had a favourite to win this time was wrong.
“These things have always been said and it’s not true, because no one knows who the leader will vote for,” Mr. Khamenei said in a speech to parliamentarians, according to his website.
“Just like everyone else, the leader only has one vote.”
Although supposedly above the fray of everyday politics, Mr. Khamenei endorsed Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed victory in 2009. The months of protests that followed were eventually crushed by security forces.
Iran’s leaders have always denied vote rigging and said the unrest had been fomented by the country’s foreign enemies that want to see an end to the Islamic Republic’s system of government.
Mr. Khamenei directly appoints six of the Guardian Council’s 12 members, and analysts say he has a direct influence in who gets to run.
The final list of eight candidates approved by the council includes Saeed Jalili, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator who once worked in Khamenei’s office; Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a close aide and relative of Khamenei; and Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy advisor to the supreme leader.
Jalili, who has overseen a hardening in Iran’s position in nuclear talks with world powers, has emerged as a frontrunner, with the backing of the conservative establishment.
He gained the endorsement on Tuesday of senior cleric and ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, who served as a religious mentor to Mr. Ahmadinejad but has since turned against the president, who fell out of favour with the clerical elite during his second four-year term.
Mr. Mesbah-Yazdi’s followers have great sway among Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and the Basij volunteer paramilitary force.
In his speech on Wednesday, Mr. Khamenei thanked those who had been rejected by the Guardian Council and had chosen to “obey the law”.
That could be read as a veiled criticism of Mr. Ahmadinejad who said he hoped the bar on his aide, Mr. Mashaie, running for president would be overturned before the election.