Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's supporters say the reason he was barred from Iran's elections is because he posed a threat to the regime. But critics say the cleric, 78, is too old to run. To prove Rafsanjani has what it takes, one of his allies came up with a novel way to show that Rafsanjani is still up to the challenge.
Iran’s Rafsanjani should enter race...over 200 metres, says ally
Iran's hardline regime has strictly curtailed voter choice, but the run-up to the presidential election next month promises to be anything but dull.
Indeed, even the terms "run-up" and "front runner" - standard electoral lexicon - could be controversial because of a bitter row that erupted after the moderate two-time former president, Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, was barred this week from contesting the June 14 vote.
His critics suggested that, at 78, the cleric was too old and infirm to manage the country. The supporters of Mr Rafsanjani, a founding father of the Islamic republic, insisted the real reason he was disqualified was because he would have trounced hardline candidates.
One of his most vociferous cheerleaders, Ali Motahari, a veteran conservative parliamentarian and son of a prominent revolutionary cleric, came up with a novel way to settle the question of physical fitness.
"I propose that … there be a 200-metre race between him [Mr Rafsanjani] and Mr Jalili and a wrestling match between him and Mr Haddad-Adel." he told Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency on Wednesday.
Saeed Jalili, 47, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, lost his lower right leg in the war against Iraq in the 1980s, and is said to have survived two Iraqi chemical-gas attacks.
Meanwhile, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a 67-year-old former parliamentary speaker and son-in-law of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is painfully thin and puny-looking.
Both men are among just eight candidates selected from a field of nearly 700 hopefuls by the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog, to contest the presidential election.
Yesterday, Mr Jalili's supporters lambasted Mr Motahari for his political incorrectness, condemning him for "mocking and ridiculing" a humble if dignified war veteran.
In a scathing public letter, they scoffed that if the outspoken deputy felt qualified to recognise sporting talent, then he should give up his seat in parliament and become a member of Iran's Olympic Committee.
Mr Jalili, widely seen as the favoured candidate of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, faces stiff competition from a more charismatic war veteran. He is Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, 51, the well-regarded mayor of Tehran, a former police chief and dashing pilot who served as air force commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards.
Although a Khamenei loyalist, he might be too independent and ambitious for the ayatollah who, stung by his experience with Mr Ahmadinejad, now seemingly wants a pliant president with as much charisma as a door-stopper.
Mr Qalibaf also suffered a blow last week when an audiotape surfaced in which he allegedly took responsibility for violently suppressing protesters in 1999 and 2003.
. His campaign team said the recording was doctored and released by his political adversaries.
Iranian presidential elections have a habit of throwing up 11th-hour surprises. But so far, Tehran is set next month for a ticker-tape finish between Mr Jalili and Mr Qalibaf. The former takes the hardest line of all the candidates but the latter seems to be more in tune with popular sentiment.