Iranian authorities have barred two leading moderate candidates from next month’s presidential election, a devastating blow to reformist hopes that is set to further depress turnout.

The Guardian Council, a hardline constitutional watchdog, announced on Tuesday that it had approved seven presidential candidates. Es’haq Jahangiri, the reformist first vice-president and Ali Larijani, a former centrist parliamentary speaker and nuclear negotiator, have not been allowed to run. Ebrahim Raisi, the hardline judiciary chief, is now the frontrunner to be the next president.

President Hassan Rouhani has urged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, to intervene, local media said. “Reformists are deprived of an active participation in the election,” Azar Mansouri, a spokesperson for the Iran Reformists Front, said on Tuesday. “What the Guardian Council did . . . is in violation of people’s rights to vote in free elections . . . and has made elections meaningless,” she added.

With Rouhani — who defeated Raisi in a landslide four years ago — standing down after two terms in office, his successor will have to steer the country through an economic crisis and manage nuclear talks to revive the 2015 accord with global powers including the US.

The remaining candidates include hardliners such as Major General Mohsen Rezaei, 66, a former top commander of the Revolutionary Guard and Saeed Jalili, 55, a former nuclear negotiator. Some of them are expected to withdraw before polling day in favour of Raisi. Reformist candidates are Mohsen Mehralizadeh, 64, a former vice-president for sports affairs and local governor who also ran for president in 2005 and Abdolnaser Hemmati, 64, the current central bank governor since 2018. Both are unknown to Iranians.

“A victory of Raisi after the elimination of his rivals would be nothing but winning a running race with turtles,” said Ahmad Zeidabadi, a reformist commentator and a former political prisoner. “Raisi, whose motto is to establish justice and fight against corruption . . . will face a challenge of how his victory could be considered just and healthy?”

Larijani, who had gradually become less conservative over the past two decades, was anticipated to be Raisi’s main rival. Hardline media have accused Larijani of collaborating with Rouhani’s government to approve the nuclear deal in parliament within 20 minutes. They have also raised concerns about the risk to national security posed by Larijani’s daughter, a doctor in the US.

Support for Rouhani and the reformists who backed him has collapsed amid an economy devastated by US sanctions and the region’s worst coronavirus death toll.

Many Iranians, weary of economic hardship and pessimistic about change, plan not to vote. “Enough is enough. We have been ridiculed so many times by this game of voting for the bad [a weak reformist] not to be stuck with the worse [ideologically-motivated hardliners],” said Zari, a 49-year-old employee at a private company. “This time is going to be very different. Even if the reformists’ god runs, I’m not going to vote.”