Iran’s Supreme Leader has confirmed that he told Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (pictured), the President from 2005 to 2013, that he should not be a candidate in next May’s election.

Ayatollah Khamenei said on Monday:

A man came to me, and I told him that it would currently be in his interests and the interests of the country for him not to participate in a certain issue. I did not tell him not to participate. I said I do not consider it to be expedient.

Khamenei said Ahmadinejad’s candidacy “would polarize the country”.

Reports emerged in Iranian media last week of the Supreme Leader’s message to Ahmadinejad in a face-to-face meeting. At the time, Khamenei’s office made no comment. However, the former director of Fars News Agency, linked to the Revolutionary Guards, elaborated on the denial: he said that 10 of the 12 members of the Guardian Council, which vets all prospective candidates, had said they would bar Ahmadinejad.

Speculation rose through the summer that Ahmadinejad would try to re-claim the Presidency, despite leaving office with a damaged economy and public rifts with both the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, as he appeared at a series of rallies. The Interior Minister warned the former President that it is illegal to campaign before the official opening of the race weeks before the May vote.

Conservatives are looking for a unifying candidate to face President Rouhani. In 2013, Rouhani was able to win a surprise victory — following the disqualification of his mentor, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, by the Guardian Council — as three different conservative hopefuls ran against him.

Among the names that have been mentioned are Tehran Mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf, who ran in 2005 and 2013, and the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani.