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Candidates in Iran blame Ahmadinejad

| Friday, April 12, 2013, 7:15 p.m.
FILE- In this April, 9, 2007, file photo Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaks at a ceremony in Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kms 186 (miles) south of capital Tehran, Iran. Iran is considering a more confrontational strategy at possible renewed nuclear talks with world powers, threatening to boost levels of uranium enrichment unless the West makes clear concessions to ease sanctions. Such a gambit outlined by senior Iranian officials in interviews could push Iran's atomic program far closer to Israel's 'red line.' (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

TEHRAN — Iran's political landscape has become increasingly divided during controversial President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second and final term. But as a diverse array of candidates to replace him takes shape, nearly all the contenders seem united on one thing: attacking the president's legacy.

The eventual winner of the June election will wield influence over the direction of negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, a topic of immense importance to the United States. In Iran, however, the biggest election issue is the sagging economy, and most among an emerging list of about 20 candidates argue that it has been harmed as much by Ahmadinejad's tenure as by international sanctions.

The growing field of hopefuls is generating fresh popular interest in an election that few believed would be competitive just a short while ago. That is in large part because candidates must be approved by Iran's Guardian Council, a powerful body of clerics and jurists, half of whom are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's traditional conservative factions — known as principlists for their loyalty to the founding principles of the Islamic Republic — make up the largest number of expected candidates. But instead of a field limited to conservatives, who once counted Ahmadinejad among their ranks but came to see him as a threat to their dominance, a number of candidates who many analysts believed would sit out for fear of not passing the strict vetting process have stepped forward.

Reformists, who have seen the modest social gains and improved foreign relations achieved during previous president Mohammad Khatami's eight-year reign evaporate under the current administration, are lining up against the president .

Among them is the lead nuclear negotiator under Khatami, Hassan Rowhani, who announced his candidacy on Thursday. The entrance of Rowhani, a cleric and one of the few moderate voices still prominent in Iran's ruling system, diminished the likelihood that Khatami or former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — both allies of Rowhani — will run again, as had been speculated.

Three conservative former members of Ahmadinejad's cabinet, including former foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, have announced their candidacies and also are running on anti-Ahmadinejad platforms.

Ultra-conservatives, led by Ayatollah Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, who was long seen as Ahmadinejad's staunchest supporter in the clergy but is now among his most vocal critics, have not yet announced candidates but are expected to do so soon.

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