Iranians must have the "right to choose" between different political movements, President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday amid controversy over the disqualification of thousands of candidates in upcoming polls.
Speaking at the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during annual celebrations of the 1979 revolution, Rouhani praised the political heritage of the Islamic Republic's founder.
"The imam (Khomeini) insisted on the fact that people must participate in all elections and have the right to choose", Rouhani said, according to the AFP news agency.
"Whoever prevents people from choosing, and does not allow them to choose between different (political) tendencies, and whoever discourages people from going to the polls, is certainly far from the approach of the imam", he added, surrounded by members of the government.
Last week, Rouhani warned of threats to the Islamic Republic's "democracy and national sovereignty", after the Guardian Council, a body dominated by his ultra-conservative rivals, disqualified thousands of candidates weeks before elections.
The Guardian Council oversees Iran's elections and is charged with vetting candidates. In 2017, for example, it disqualified former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from running for president.
The Council said it has barred some 9,500 potential candidates from standing in the February 21 legislative polls -- almost two thirds of the 14,500 hopefuls -- including 92 sitting MPs from of all political stripes.
Those who are barred are allowed to appeal before the election.
Rouhani on Sunday said Khomeini had "refused" to establish a "caliphate" and instead "chose the Islamic Republic" after the victory of the revolution against the shah's rule.
Rouhani made reference to the failed constitutional revolution in 1905 -- the first attempt to establish democracy in Iran -- with the restoration of an absolute monarchy some years later.
He warned that the same could happen to the Islamic republic if elections became a mere "formality", with weak turnout.
Despite being touted as a “moderate” reformist, Iran has set new records under Rouhani’s presidency in the number of executions, many for political or religious "crimes".
He has also done little in the way of freeing reformist political leaders who were jailed after protesting the 2009 election and in stopping the limitations on freedom of speech in Iran, despite having openly criticized it.