Iran's election watchdog said on Friday that it may reconsider the barring of candidates from this month's presidential election after the supreme leader said some of them had been wronged.
"The orders of the supreme leader are final and his ruling must be obeyed. The Guardian Council will soon announce its opinion, acknowledging that it is not immune to error," council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei tweeted.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on Iran's affairs, last month endorsed the council's rejection of several prominent moderate and conservative candidates for the June 18 vote, including former parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
The council approved just seven candidates from a field of about 600 hopefuls, including hardline judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, an ally of Mr Khamenei who took 38 per cent of the vote in the 2017 presidential election.
On Friday, however, Mr Khamenei said some of the disqualified candidates had been treated unfairly.
"In the vetting process some candidates were wronged. They were accused of untrue things that were unfortunately spread throughout the internet too. Protecting people's honour is one of the most important issues. I call on the responsible bodies to restore their honour," he said in a televised speech.
It was unclear if the council will consider reinstating rejected candidates or just counter rumours about them. Social media posts said candidates faced hostile questions about overseas relatives' possible dual citizenship, which Iran does not recognise.
Mehdi Fazaeli, an official close to Mr Khamenei, said on Twitter that the leader's criticism was not directed at the Guardian Council and would not affect its decision.
As it stands, Iranian voters will have a choice between seven candidates – five hardliners and two low-key moderates. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani is legally barred from standing for a third consecutive term.
The council's decision prompted calls for an election boycott, denting the clerical rulers' hopes of a high turnout amid discontent over an economy crippled by US sanctions.
The election campaign began on May 28 without fanfare and in an atmosphere of indifference, with many saying the result is a foregone conclusion. The opposition based outside Iran is running a campaign on social media networks calling for people to stay away from the polls, using hashtags in Farsi such as #NototheIslamicRepublic.
Mr Khamenei on Friday repeated his call for Iranians to turn out for the vote, saying failure to do so would be a sin.
"It is the will of the enemies, the enemies of Iran, the enemies of Islam and the enemies of religious democracy," he said.
"It has been said that some people are reluctant to go to the ballot box due to the pressures on their livelihoods, which we all know and experience," he said. Such problems are solved "by making the right choice, not by not choosing", he said.
A record 57 per cent of Iranians stayed away from parliamentary elections in February last year in which thousands of candidates, many of them moderates and reformists, were barred from running.
The presidential election is likely to reinforce Mr Khamenei's authority at home at a time when Iran and six world powers are trying to revive the 2015 nuclear deal that offered sanctions relief in return for Iran's agreement to tight controls on its nuclear programme.
The accord has been on life support since US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions.
Mr Khamenei's allies put responsibility for Iran's economic problems squarely on the government and said that Washington cannot be trusted to fulfil any accord.
With reporting from agencies