(CNSNews.com) – More than 1,600 Iranians formally applied to be allowed to run for the presidency in next month’s election, but a small legal-religious body appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has now announced that just six, including incumbent President Hasan Rouhani, are eligible.
The election comes at a time when the Trump administration is conducting a comprehensive review  of Iran policy and signaling a significantly tougher approach than its predecessor.
Among the candidates approved by the Guardian Council is Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline senior Shi’a cleric and former administrative court judge who is seen as a possible successor to the 77-year old Khamenei. The current supreme leader was himself president (1980-1989) before being elevated to the regime’s indisputably most powerful position, and a victory for Raisi would likely strengthen his own chances to become supreme leader.
Raisi’s background includes membership of a notorious “death panel” that oversaw the mass execution of imprisoned dissidents in 1988, decreed by then-supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
He currently serves as custodian  of one of Iran’s most important endowments, a position appointed by and answerable to the supreme leader.
Iran describes itself as an electoral democracy, but the Guardian Council tightly controls who may run for electoral office. Ahead of the May 19 presidential election, a total of 1,636 Iranians applied to be allowed to run, but in the course of less than a week all but six were deemed unsuitable and disqualified.
Among those rejected was former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but also an undetermined number of more moderate aspirants – and 137 women.
In the last presidential election four years ago, the Guardian Council approved eight out of 678 aspiring candidates. The largest number of presidential hopefuls ever given the green light since the 1979 Islamic revolution was ten – out of 814 applicants – in 2001. No woman has ever been allowed to run.
According to an Interior Ministry announcement on Thursday, the other candidates allowed to run this year are:
--Rouhani, whose first term was dominated by negotiations over the nuclear agreement concluded with the U.S. and five other powers, and its subsequent implementation;
--Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, Tehran’s mayor and a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Air Force and former national police chief;
--Mostafa Aqa-Mirsalim, a member of the Expediency Council – a body that advises the supreme leader – who served as an advisor to Khamenei when the latter was president;
--Mostafa Hashemi-Taba, a former vice-president and former minister of industries; and
--Es’haq Jahangiri, a current vice president and former minister of mines.
Khamenei on Wednesday warned that Iran’s “enemies” would try to damage the electoral process but vowed that the nation would foil the plots as it has done in the past.
“For Washington, a Raisi victory will mean a president more stridently opposed of U.S. policies, vocally supportive of Tehran’s regional destabilization, and likely more willing to jeopardize the 2015 nuclear deal,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, wrote in a policy brief  when Raisi declared his candidacy.
“Such a scenario is a real possibility, and the United States should prepare accordingly,” he advised.
The full story of the mass executions of Iranian dissidents in 1988 has yet to be told, but according to published accounts, over the summer of that year political prisoners were questioned about their political affiliation, religious views and piety, as well as their willingness to recant and inform on other dissidents.
The executions took place by hanging, and bodies were buried in unmarked graves. Many of those killed were reportedly members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (MEK) who had already been sentenced and were serving prison terms.
The MEK, a controversial group that wants to overthrow the clerical regime in Tehran, was designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization until its delisting in 2012.