The GTPase Ran has recently been shown to stimulate microtubule polymerization in mitotic extracts, but its mode of action is not understood. Here we show that the mitotic role of Ran is largely mediated by the nuclear transport factor importin β. Importin β inhibits spindle formation in vitro and in vivo and sequesters an aster promoting activity (APA) that consists of multiple, independent factors. One component of APA is the microtubule-associated protein NuMA. NuMA and other APA components are discharged from importin β by RanGTP and induce spindle-like structures in the absence of centrosomes, chromatin, or Ran. We propose that RanGTP functions in mitosis as in interphase by locally releasing cargoes from transport factors. In mitosis, this promotes spindle assembly by organizing microtubules in the vicinity of chromosomes.