Reuters International

FILE PHOTO: Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf gestures in this undated handout photo provided by Tasnim News Agency on May 9, 2017. Tasnim News Agency/Handout/File Photo via REUTERS

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LONDON (Reuters) - Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf quit the Iranian presidential race on Monday, backing instead hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in Friday's vote.

Qalibaf, a former Revolutionary Guards commander and police chief, was one of the main challengers to President Hassan Rouhani who is seeking a second term.

In the last election four years ago, Qalibaf finished second but with just 16.5 percent of the vote. Rouhani, who pledged to reduce Iran's international isolation and grant more freedoms at home, averted a second round by winning just over 50 percent.

This time around, establishment conservative hardliners who want to unseat Rouhani are mainly placing their trust in Ebrahim Raisi, a jurist and Shi'ite cleric who studied at the feet of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

They were not happy that the maverick Tehran mayor was standing again and thereby raising the risk of splitting the anti-Rouhani vote.

"I should take an important decision to keep the unity of revolutionary forces," Qalibaf said in a statement published in state media. "I ask all my supporters around the country to use all their capacity to help my brother, Mr Ebrahim Raisi, win the election."

Raisi and Qalibaf were following the same campaign tactics, criticising Rouhani's economic record and his policy of detente with the West. Both presidential hopefuls jumped on the Islamic Republic's unemployment rate, which rose to 12.4 percent last year, up 1.4 percent from the previous year.

Raisi and Qalibaf promised to create five to six million jobs in their first term if elected and to triple the monthly cash handouts to Iran's poor, but drew criticism for not explaining how they would fund such programmes.

Rouhani told supporters on Monday he needed a stronger mandate to liberalise Iranian society.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Reuters

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