Iran’s high-stakes presidential race is picking up steam after former reformist President Mohammad Khatami endorsed the candidacy of presidential hopeful Hassan Rohani, a few hours after the ranks of the conservatives were bolstered with the withdrawal of one of their contenders from the fray.

In a statement on Tuesday, Mr. Khatami said responsibility toward the country had persuaded him to pitch for Mr. Rohani in the June 14 election.

In near oblivion during the last four years of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Khatami now seems be pulling the strings in the reformist camp. His backroom manoeuvring was in full view in the decision by Mohammad-Reza Aref — a relatively lightweight reformist candidate — to back off from the contest to enable consolidation of reformist votes behind Mr. Rohani. “In consideration of Mr. Khatami’s explicit opinion, and the experiences of two past presidential elections, I declare my withdrawal from the election campaign,” said Mr. Aref on Tuesday.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Rohani, a nuclear negotiator during Mr. Khatami’s presidency, is waging a battle for hearts and minds of the youth, who comprise a majority of Iran’s population. During a speech in a trendy north Tehran neighbourhood, Mr. Rohani said under his presidency, he would “open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives during the past eight years”. He added: “You, dear students and hero youth, are the ones who have come to restore the national economy and improve the people’s living standards. We will bring back our country to the dignity of the past.”

During a 30-minute promotional video, Mr. Rohani slammed “plainclothes people”, an oblique reference to the paramilitary Basij, for harassing the people. He also strongly advocated gender equality in Iran, stating in the video: “In my government, differences between women and men won’t be tolerated”.

Keeping pace with the reformists, the conservatives are also bracing for a tighter contest. On Monday, Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel, a former Majlis Speaker, opted out of the presidential race. He reasoned that by departing from the contest, he was strengthening the “Principlist camp”— the nomenclature for a wide variety of conservative groups and parties — that had fielded three candidates in the upcoming election. In his statement, Mr. Haddad-Adel said he was part of a 2+1 Principlist coalition that included Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. He pointed out that by withdrawing his candidacy, he hoped to avoid a “defeat of the Principlists in this election”.

Mr. Haddad-Adel said that before filing nominations, the Principlists had decided that in the end, only one of the candidates would remain in the electoral fray. He hoped that his other colleagues would also abide by this understanding.

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