By Yeganeh Torbati and Marcus George
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's clerical rulers may have sought to remove any challenge to their grip by barring two vivid contenders from next month's presidential election, but they risk alienating voters already disillusioned by the violent aftermath of the 2009 poll.
The June 14 vote will have little bearing on the policies that have long put Iran at odds with the West - ranging from its nuclear program to its support for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas.
These will remain firmly under the control of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has refused to curb sensitive atomic work despite crippling Western sanctions and Israeli and U.S. threats of military action. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Yet Iran's rulers have always seen a high election turnout, as underpinning their legitimacy - hence the danger of voiding them of any credibility in the eyes of voters by using the many institutional levers available to limit free democratic choice.
The Guardian Council, a vetting body, disqualified ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, despite his hefty political role in the past three decades, as well as Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's former chief of staff, leaving a field dominated by hardliners loyal to Khamenei.
Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday he would ask Khamenei to reverse the ban on Mashaie. Rafsanjani, a pillar of the 1979 Islamic Revolution who has held a series of powerful positions in the past, will not appeal, his campaign chief said.
Barring surprises, their elimination sets the stage for a Khamenei loyalist from the "principlist" camp to win - and will disappoint many Iranians, notably those from urban and middle-class backgrounds, who had hoped for a more open contest.
"I feel indifferent," said a 33-year-old dissident journalist in Tehran who gave his name only as Hamed.
"Most people feel the same as long as they don't have a say in the political arena, as long as the authorities are running the election and can rig the votes at will and as long as the ruling system can filter candidates at their own discretion."
STAYING AT HOME
A 27-year-old translator named Firouzeh said she had been undecided about whether to vote. "Thanks to the Guardian Council for disqualifying Hashemi (Rafsanjani). Now I can stay home on election day without any doubts," she said sarcastically.
Khamenei is seen as wanting a more docile president than the turbulent populist Ahmadinejad, who had often challenged his authority, even though he had endorsed his divisive re-election.
In theory the supreme leader could reinstate the two high-profile challengers in the race, but this seems unlikely.
"Khamenei surely signaled to the Guardian Council ... that he did not want Rafsanjani or Mashaie to run," said Cliff Kupchan of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. "The leader wants a pliant president and a calm election."
Ahmadinejad's 2009 triumph in a vote his opponents said was rigged led to the worst popular unrest in the Islamic Republic's history, severely damaging the ruling system's credentials.
Rafsanjani earned hardliners' wrath at the time for criticizing authorities' treatment of protesters.
His last-minute entry into the presidential race had already captured the interest of Iranian voters - something which may have prompted the decision to nip his candidacy in the bud.
"I was really surprised by the ferment and the (pro-Rafsanjani) wave of joy that broke out in the country, and in my opinion this wave upset the principlists," Tehran University professor Sadeq Zibakalam told Asr-e Iran daily on Tuesday.
Eshaq Jahangiri, head of Rafsanjani's campaign, was quoted in ISNA news agency on Wednesday as saying the veteran politician would not object to the Guardian Council's decision.
Rafsanjani was a close associate of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, whose daughter has voiced dismay at the ban on her late father's one-time aide.
"This act has no meaning other than creating a separation between two companions of the Imam (Khomeini) and a disregarding of the enthusiasm and interest of the people towards the system and the elections," Zahra Mostafavi wrote in a letter on the Jamaran news site, thought to be linked to Khomeini's family.
"The gradual separation between the two of you (Khamenei and Rafsanjani) will be the biggest blow to the revolution and the system," she wrote. "The Imam always said: 'These two are good when they are together'."
Ahmadinejad, who cannot run for a third consecutive term himself, said he would challenge the ban on Mashaie, calling him a "righteous person and beneficial for the country", ISNA said.
Ahmadinejad has in the past threatened to reveal evidence of corruption by his rivals, though analysts said any such challenge to the ruling establishment would carry grave risks.
"The institutional leverage available to the supreme leader and his allies will outweigh any evidence or anything that Ahmadinejad and his team have up their sleeve," said Yasmin Alem, a U.S.-based expert on Iran's electoral system.
Hardliners loathe Mashaie, seeing him as figurehead of a "deviant" nationalist current bent on undermining clerical rule.
Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad, an ambitious, fiery figure, seems reluctant to see his own political power eclipsed. The former Revolutionary Guard commander is thought to remain popular with many poorer Iranians, especially in the provinces, who have benefited from his cash handouts and local development projects.
Two prominent reformists, former nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani and Mohammad Reza Aref, a former vice-president under ex-President Mohammad Khatami, remain in the race but they lack the charisma and organization to make much impact, according to Ali Ansari, an Iran analyst at St Andrew's University in Scotland.
He said Saeed Jalili, Iran's current nuclear negotiator, was emerging as the frontrunner among Khamenei loyalists who also include Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
"Basically Jalili is the man to beat, this is how the script is intended to go now," Ansari said. "A nice, tidy election unless Ahmadinejad chooses to do something disruptive."
The defeated opposition candidates in the 2009 election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, are under house arrest and their "Green Movement" has been cowed and suppressed.
France said their fate showed that Iran's elections would be held in a "climate of growing repression" and criticized the bans imposed by the Guardian Council on would-be candidates.
This "shows the extent the Iranian system is bolted", said Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot. "The eligibility criteria undeniably lacks transparency."