Iran's electoral watchdog cleared three candidates on Wednesday to challenge incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 presidential elections as the Islamic republic launched a missile with a range of around 2,000 km (1,200 miles) and threatened to send any attacker "to hell."
The three candidates approved by the Guardians Council are former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi and the former head of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai, an interior ministry statement said.
"Obedience" to Khamenei
The candidates, selected from more than 450 hopefuls, were approved after being screened for their allegiance to Iran's Islamic government system and "absolute obedience" to the country's top authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Forty-two of the hopefuls were women but none passed the test to stand in the election.
Mousavi, who claims to be a "reformist who refers to the principles" of the 1979 Islamic revolution, is seen as the main opponent to Ahmadinejad who is facing severe criticism over economic policies viewed as inflationary.
Karroubi has promised to kick-start reforms in Iran but in a "moderate" way that he says will not trigger the wrath of his hardline opponents.
Rezai too is critical of the policies adopted by Ahmadinejad and has promised to tackle poverty, high prices and unemployment.
Reformists believe a high turnout would give them a better chance to win the vote. But they say state media have not given sufficient coverage of the election to mobilize Iranian voters.
Policy of detente
Ahmadinejad's moderate rivals say his trips across Iran ahead of the authorized campaigning period are illegal and should be stopped. The government has refused to halt the trips. State radio and television deny being partial.
Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005 vowing to share out oil wealth more fairly but critics blame him for disappointing economic growth and high inflation. However, his promises of a fairer redistribution of income still resonate with the poor.
The president regularly rails against the West and vows a return to Islamic revolutionary values. Khamenei has urged Iranians to support anti-Western candidates.
The three other candidates said Iran needed to have interaction and "policy of detente" with the West, at odds with the Islamic state over its nuclear program.
Some 46 million Iranians aged 18 years and older are eligible to vote in the polls, Iran's tenth presidential election since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
According to the Iranian constitution, candidates should have a political and religious background, hold Iranian citizenship and believe in the principles of the Islamic republic and the official religion of the country.
The election campaign will run to June 10. The interior ministry said results will be declared a day after the election.
Meanwhile, the Islamic republic announced it had launched a surface-to-surface Sejil 2 missile, which would be almost as far as another Iranian missile, Shahab 3, and military analysts say it could enable Iran to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Gulf.
The announcement was likely to arouse further concern in the West and Israel about Iran's military ambitions. The United States and its allies suspect the Islamic Republic is seeking to build nuclear bombs. Tehran denies the charge.
"The Sejil 2 missile, which has an advanced technology, was launched today ... and it landed exactly on the target," the official IRNA news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
He was speaking during a rally in the northern Semnan province, where IRNA said the launch took place. State television said it was a test and showed footage of a missile soaring into the sky, leaving a vapour trail.
Iran has said it would respond to any attack by targeting U.S. interests and America's ally Israel, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for world oil supplies.
Ahmadinejad said Iran had the power to "send to hell" any military base from where "a bullet" was fired against the country. He singled out Israel, which Iran usually refers to as the Zionist regime.
"Right now the Zionist regime ... threatens Iran militarily with its false threats," Ahmadinejad said.
FM cancels visit
Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Wednesday cancelled a planned visit to Iran after Tehran changed the venue from the capital to the missile test site of Semnan, the foreign ministry said.
"The visit of Foreign Minister Franco Frattini to Iran will not take place following Tehran's conditioning request to plan the protocol meeting with the Iranian president in a city other than the capital, in Semnan," the ministry said in a communiqué.
"This request received this morning was not welcomed by the foreign minister who wanted to express his strong regret over a lost opportunity," the foreign ministry said.
Frattini had hoped to explore ways in which to "involve Iran in the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan," it said.
Frattini was also expected to raise the issue of Iran's nuclear capability and the Middle East, the ministry said earlier.
He was to reiterate the "two peoples and two states" solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and the principle of "recognizing the existence of the state of Israel whose security is absolutely not negotiable," the ministry said.