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Iran bars two leading candidates from presidential election

Abedin Taherkenareh / EPA

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) and presidential candidate Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei (R) flash the victory sign as Mashaie registers his candidacy at the Interior Ministry during the registration for Iran's upcoming presidential election on 14 June, in Tehran, Iran, on May 11.

DUBAI -- Iranian authorities have barred two potentially powerful and disruptive candidates from running in next month's presidential election, ensuring a contest largely among hardliners loyal to the clerical supreme leader.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a veteran companion of the Islamic Republic's founder, a former president and thought potentially sympathetic to reform, was denied a place on the ballot by the Guardian Council of clerics and jurists, state media said Tuesday.

Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was also barred. His hardline followers have jockeyed with those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term himself, said on Wednesday he would challenge the ban on Mashaie, calling him a "righteous person and beneficial for the country," according to the ISNA news agency.

"In my opinion there will be no problem with the Leader and I will take up this issue until the last moment with him," Ahmadinejad said. "I am hopeful the problem will be solved."

Supreme leader's website via EPA

A handout picture made available by Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's official website shows Ayatollah Khamenei delivering his Persian New Year message to the nation in Tehran, Iran, 20 March 2013.

Mashaie was quoted by Fars news agency as saying he considered his disqualification "unjust and I will pursue a resolution to it via the supreme leader."

His campaign office issued a statement calling for restraint by his followers.

"We ask all grassroots and spontaneous staff and supporters of Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie to stay calm and organize their activities so that they do not provide the means for malice by enemies of the Islamic Revolution," it said.

But Eshaq Jahangiri, head of Rafsanjani's campaign, was quoted by INSA on Wednesday as saying the veteran politician would not object to the Guardian Council's decision.

"Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani and his campaign as a whole entered the field on the basis of following the rule of law and morals, and will continue in this way as well," Jahangiri said.

Two of Rafsanjani's children have recently been imprisoned.

Most of the remaining eight men on the ballot for the first round on June 14 are seen as loyalists to Khamenei, who seems determined to avoid a repeat of the popular unrest that followed Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009.

The election comes at a time when Iran is engaged in bitter economic, diplomatic and military confrontations with the West, Israel and its Arab neighbors.

There is no clear frontrunner in a field that now includes Saeed Jalili, the chief negotiator for Iran's controversial nuclear program, Ali Akbar Velayati, Khamenei's foreign policy adviser, and Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the mayor of Tehran.

With economic hardships increasing as a result of Western sanctions over the nuclear dispute, some Iranians have favored a change of tack and there is still substantial public support for reformist leaders who disputed their electoral defeat four years ago and are now under house arrest.

Khamenei could over-rule the Guardian Council and reinstate candidates but analysts said the moves at this stage, especially against Rafsanjani, appeared designed to nip protest in the bud.

At schools, in shops, and on the streets of big cities and small towns, daily life plays out in Iran.

Four years ago, Ahmadinejad was declared outright winner in the first round against three other candidates including the reformist Mirhossein Mousavi, sparking weeks of protests. Mousavi and another leader of the liberal "Green Movement," Mehdi Karoubi, have been under house arrest for over two years.

The other five approved candidates on the Interior Ministry list for this year’s election were: Mohsen Rezaie, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards; Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, another close aide to Khamenei; Hassan Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator close to Rafsanjani; Mohammad Gharazi, a former telecommunications minister; and Mohammad Reza Aref, the only clear reformist left on the list.

"All of the approved candidates are either loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei or are mostly irrelevant," said Alireza Nader, an analyst at RAND Corporation. "Khamenei may still overturn the decision, but Rafsanjani's disqualification shows that Khamenei is determined to wield all power. This appears to be a presidential selection rather than an election."