By Marcus George
DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranian authorities barred two potentially powerful and disruptive candidates from running in next month's presidential election on Tuesday, 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.
So too was Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a close aide to outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose hardline followers have jockeyed with those of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Both rejections may generate angry responses and Mashaie for one said he would appeal, while urging supporters to stay calm.
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 - especially at a time when Iran is engaged in bitter economic, diplomatic and military confrontations with the West, Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The outcome - and the extent to which voters will turn out to lend the election legitimacy - remain in considerable doubt.
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.
Some of that might have been channeled to Rafsanjani, 78, a key figure alongside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Revolution, who was president from 1989 to 1997 and in 2009 earned the wrath of hardliners by sympathizing with reformists during the worst unrest since the state was founded.
Two of Rafsanjani's children have recently been imprisoned.
Like Mashaie, an almost constant presence by the outspoken Ahmadinejad's side, Rafsanjani registered his candidacy at the last moment, shaking up a race that failed to inspire enthusiasm among an electorate more concerned about economic difficulties.
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.
"The cost of disqualifying Rafsanjani now is significantly less than dealing with him down the road," said Yasmin Alem, a U.S.-based analyst. "Allowing him to run and mobilize the electorate and then try to change the results would have been more costly. This is a lesson from 2009."
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 were: Mohsen Rezaie, a former head of the Revolutionary Guards; Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel, another close aide to Khamenei; Hassan Rohani, 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."
Rafsanjani is seen as a "pillar of the revolution" because of his closeness to the late Khomeini and has been near the heart of power since the revolution. His candidacy was regarded as a significant threat to all other contenders.
Though the presidency is subordinate to Khamenei, who succeeded as supreme leader on Khomeini's death in 1989, the possibility the Rafsanjani might recalibrate domestic and foreign policies to limit economic and diplomatic stresses had already led to a groundswell of public support for him and his candidacy was quickly endorsed by reformist groups.
Given a rivalry between Rafsanjani and Khamenei that goes back 50 years, the former president may not go quietly.
Ahmadinejad ally Mashaie was quoted by Fars news agency as saying he would contest the Guardian Council's decision: "I consider my 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," it said, "And organize their activities so that they do not provide the means for malice by enemies of the Islamic Revolution."
The Guardian Council, a 12-strong panel of clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and Islamic jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by parliament, has the power to reject any candidate it deems unfit. No reasons were given for its decisions to bar Rafsanjani and Mashaie. A statement quoted by state media said there would be no recourse to appeal.
A new president would be unlikely to make any rapid change to Iran's nuclear or foreign policy, both of which are controlled by the supreme leader, but analysts say Rafsanjani would have sought a thaw in relations with the West.
In the United States, the "Great Satan" for Iran's leaders, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell urged the Tehran authorities to give Iranians a free vote: "The Council narrowed the list of almost 700 potential candidates down to eight officials based solely on who the regime believes will represent its interests, rather than those of the Iranian people."
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Jon Hemming and Alastair Macdonald)