DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's most powerful leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned the Iranian public on Tuesday against helping Tehran's enemies by criticizing the forthcoming presidential election.
Iranians go to the polls in June to elect a successor to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Iran's leadership is keen to avoid a repeat of the widespread protests that followed the last presidential vote in 2009.
Khamenei's comments appear to be a response to a debate inside Iran about whether reformist candidates - those with a more moderate stance on issues such as social policy and greater political freedoms - should be allowed to run.
"Everyone, even those who make general recommendations about the election through (expressing) concerns, should take care not to serve the purpose of the enemy," Khamenei said in a statement published on his official website.
Analysts say reformist candidates may be allowed to run for election if they distance themselves from the two 2009 presidential candidates, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, who have been under house arrest for nearly two years.
The two opposition leaders alleged Ahmadinejad's landslide reelection was rigged and they became figureheads for the "green movement" anti-government demonstrations across Iran, the biggest opposition protests since the 1979 revolution.
The government denied vote rigging and said the protests had been stirred up by Iran's foreign enemies as part of a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic's system of government.
Reformist groups are torn between participating in the election and boycotting it unless Mousavi and Karoubi are freed. Their position is expected to be debated at a meeting of reformist groups later this month.
Last month, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said that a free, transparent and legal election could pave the way for "restoration of moderation" in the country, the Tehran Times newspaper reported.
Longstanding enmity between Iran and the West has deepened in recent years, with increasingly severe sanctions led by the United States and European Union, designed to halt Iran's nuclear programme, strangling the economy.
Iran says its nuclear project has only peaceful purposes and has refused in three rounds of international talks since April to scale back its uranium enrichment activity unless major economic sanctions are rescinded.
(Reporting By Marcus George; Editing by William Maclean and Robin Pomeroy)