Islamic Republic 's Leader Ali Khamenei shows him (C) alongside Hassan Rouhani and the commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Esmail Qaani (R) during a mourning ceremony in Tehran, Iran on January 9, 2020. REUTERS/FILE PHOTO

 – Iran‘s hardline watchdog body has banned former pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani from standing again in an election in March for the Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can dismiss the supreme leader, state media said on Wednesday.

The 88-member assembly, founded in 1982, supervises the most powerful authority but has rarely intervened directly in policy-making.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 84, so the new assembly is expected to play a significant role in choosing his successor since its members are only elected every eight years.

In a statement, Rouhani criticised the Guardian Council’s ruling as “politically biased … (one) that will undermine the nation’s confidence in the system”.

Close to moderates, Rouhani was elected president in a landslide in 2013 and 2017 on a promise to reduce Iran‘s diplomatic isolation.

But the mid-ranking cleric angered political hardliners who opposed any rapprochement with the U.S. “Great Satan” after reaching a 2015 nuclear pact with six major powers.

The deal unravelled in 2018 when then-U.S. President Donald Trump ditched the agreement and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran‘s economy. Efforts to revive the pact have failed.

“There was no reason given for the Guardian Council’s decision,” a source close to Rouhani told Reuters, adding that “no decision has been made yet for an appeal” as Rouhani has three days to object the ruling.

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“Rouhani has been a member of the assembly since 1999 for three terms. … It will be interesting to see what the reason for his disqualification was.”

The 12-member Guardian Council, which oversees elections and legislation, disqualified 80% of candidates running for the assembly in its last election in 2016.

Moderate politicians have accused the Guardian Council of disqualifying rivals, and said that excluding candidates from the race undermines the vote’s legitimacy.

A low turnout for the upcoming elections is expected, with Rouhani saying that the majority of people do not want to vote and that this will favour the ruling minority which relies on low turnout.

“Undoubtedly, the ruling minority overtly seeks to reduce public participation in elections … intending to dictate the people’s fate through their decisions,” he said in the statement published on Rouhani’s website.

With Rouhani’s disqualification, the Guardian Council had made it clear that hardliners intended to keep moderates away from the assembly, a pro-reform insider said.

The Guardian Council has also disqualified hundreds of hopefuls running for the parliamentary election also to be held on March 1.

State media reported that only 30 mid-ranking moderate candidates have been qualified to stand for the 290-seat parliament. Around 12,000 hopefuls will run for parliament.

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(Additional reporting by Elwelly Elwelly; Editing by Parisa Hafez, Nick Macfie and Richard Chang)