TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian pro-reform candidate on Tuesday pulled out of this week's presidential election to give support to a centrist whose campaign has gained momentum in recent days.
The decision by Mohammad Reza Aref is seen as a major boost for Hasan Rowhani, who now faces off against five conservative candidates in the vote on Friday.
Aref's website Draref.ir said he made the decision at the urging of reformist ex-President Mohammad Khatami. State TV and media also reported his withdrawal.
Aref said he received a message from Khatami telling him that his continued candidacy in the June 14 election "is not in the interest" of Iran's reformers.
He said his campaign could be a "base and great social capital" for the reform movement.
Soon after Aref's statement, Khatami released a message thanking Aref, calling him "dear brother," urging all reformists vote for Rowhani.
"I will give my vote to his excellency the esteemed brother Rowhani. And I ask all reformists to see the presence of Rowhani (in the race) as an opportunity for achieving their demands," Khatami said.
The former president is considered a father of Iran's reform movement, and Aref has been a close ally of Khatami's since his 1997-2005 terms in office. Rowhani has close ties with both Khatami and another influential former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was barred in May from standing in the election by a clerically run constitutional watchdog.
Zahra Mostafavi, the daughter of late founder of Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, put out a statement supporting Rowhani.
"Rowhani is the preferred candidate," said Mostafavi, the head of a women's association.
On Monday, a hard-line candidate withdrew to avoid splitting the vote with other conservative candidates.
Under the Iranian system, if no candidate gets a majority in the first round, then the top two have a run-off.
The election will choose a successor for outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who under the law cannot run for a third term.
It is also a major test for Iran's clerically dominated establishment after the disputed 2009 re-election of Ahmadinejad, which was followed by unrest and massive crackdown of reformists, many of them still in prison.