ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The field for the Iranian presidential election was narrowed this week. We're going to take a look at who's in and who's out for the May 19 vote and what kind of choice Iranian voters face. Whoever wins will have a big impact on relations with the United States and on the ongoing international deal to limit Iran's nuclear program. It's not an open process in Iran.
Last night, state TV reported that the clerical committee called the Guardian Council, that vets candidates, had ruled on who could run. NPR's Peter Kenyon is reporting on this from Turkey and joins us now. And, Peter, before we talk about who can run, who's in, there was one well-known former president who was out, who was disqualified, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why was his candidacy barred?
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: That's right. And it is pretty unusual for this Guardian Council to eliminate somebody who's already held the job not just once but twice. But Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had advised Ahmadinejad don't get into this race. He is a divisive figure. His re-election in 2009 saw massive street protests.
So I think it's fair to say the leadership didn't want to see that kind of history dragged up again, at least that's how Iranians are interpreting it. The council hasn't given its reasons.
SIEGEL: Well, assuming that the state television, state media reports hold up and will be made official, where does that leave President Rouhani? And who are his most important challengers in May?
KENYON: There are six candidates but it seems the race might boil down to Rouhani versus his most prominent hardline challenger. And that's a cleric named Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi is sometimes mentioned as a possible successor to the supreme leader but he also has some baggage. I spoke with an Iranian journalist, Behdad Bordbar. He lives now in Norway. He's worked for the BBC and others.
He says Raisi's problem is his alleged involvement in what human rights groups called the committee of death back in the late 1980s. Large numbers of political prisoners just disappeared, they're presumed killed. No one's ever been brought to account for that. Bordbar thinks Raisi could be vulnerable on that. Here's a bit of what he told me.
BEHDAD BORDBAR: They executed more than 3,000 political prisoners. That gives a very good opportunity to reformists to attack him because of the human rights issue and they are going to do that.
KENYON: Of course, on human rights, we have to say Rouhani himself doesn't have a great record in his first term, either. So we'll have to see how big an issue that becomes.
SIEGEL: So, Peter, there's a field of six candidates approved by this council of clerics. Does that amount to a real choice for voters in Iran?
KENYON: Well, if you think of a choice between a pragmatist like Rouhani and a hardliner, there is a candidate named Mostafa Mostafa Hashemitaba. He served under a former moderate president. You could call him a reformer but most of the people I've talked to don't give him a big chance right now. It is early days, we'll have to see.
There is the Tehran mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. He'll be running probably on economic issues and why there hasn't been more economic progress at the street level since Iran cut back its nuclear program in that big deal to get sanctions relief.
SIEGEL: Will that deal likely be a big issue in the presidential race?
KENYON: It could. Some in Iran see the Iran bashing in Washington as kind of a boost to the hardline camp. On the other hand, Rouhani supporters are seizing on it as well. They say look, our man is being attacked by the great enemy America, so he must be doing something right.
And as it happens, President Trump's ordered a review of this decision to lift Iran sanctions. And there is a regular review that's coming up in May, probably right before the election. And that could affect the race. And you're already hearing October surprise jokes in Tehran, I'm told.
SIEGEL: NPR's Peter Kenyon in Istanbul. Peter, thanks.
KENYON: Thanks, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.