Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday contested the disqualification of a close aide from next month's presidential election by a conservative body that also dismissed moderate Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, leaving a field dominated by candidates close to Tehran's ruling clerics.
The Guardians Council on Tuesday eliminated both the aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, and ex-president Rafsanjani from a list of candidates for the June 14 election, without giving an explanation.
But President Ahmadinejad, who himself cannot stand for a third consecutive term, said he would take up the disqualification with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all national affairs.
"I will pursue this case through the supreme leader until the last moment and I hope this problem will be solved," he said on the president's office website, adding his man Mashaie had been "a victim of injustice".
Khamenei has the power to ask the council to review such cases, as he did in 2005, resulting in the reinstatement of two reformist candidates.
Rafsanjani's camp said the ex-president would not challenge his disqualification.
Rafsanjani lost most of his political stock after being defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2009 and then voiced support for reformists who opposed the incumbent's re-election.
"They called my father and told him to withdraw from the race but my father said he will not withdraw since 'I cannot betray people who urged me to come forward'," said his daughter Fatemeh Hashemi Rafsanjani.
However, his name did not appear on the list of approved candidates published later.
The 12-member Guardians Council, without naming the 78-year-old Rafsanjani, said frailty and old age had been factors in the disqualifications, a comment ridiculed by his daughter.
"There are many people of advanced age who hold high-ranking posts in the country and also are ill. Therefore it is utterly evident that age is a pretext," she said.
Ahmadinejad's re-election sparked massive street protests, leading to a heavy-handed regime crackdown and the arrest of hundreds of journalists, activists and reformist supporters who alleged fraud.
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His 2009 challengers Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been held under house arrest since the protests, one of the worst political crises in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
"Barring Mashaie was a natural move since Ayatollah Khamenei refused Ahmadinejad's bid to appoint him as first vice president" in 2009, according to analyst Mohammad Saleh Sedghian.
"Rafsanjani's disqualification will lead to division among the clerics, among the people and political circles as he is one of the pillars of the Islamic revolution," he told AFP.
Outspoken conservative MP Ali Motahari said Rafsanjani's barring "will deliver a serious blow to the upcoming election."
France on Wednesday joined the United States in condemning the disqualifications, which whittled down the candidate field to eight from 686, saying the Iranian people should be allowed to "freely choose" their leaders.
"These elections will take place in an increasing climate of repression in Iran," said French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.
Only eight candidates won approval to stand -- five conservatives close to Khamenei, two moderates and a reformist -- in a decision welcomed by some 150 members of the 290-member parliament.
Analysts said the disqualifications put Iran's lead nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili -- who is close to Khamenei -- well placed to take the election.
"In the conservative camp, the tide is turning in favour of Jalili," said conservative political analyst Amir Mohebian.
"The compass among the conservatives points towards Jalili... because he is deemed to be adhering more to the revolutionary values and he is better linked to the regime's powerful decision-makers," said Sedghian.
Jalili's conservative rivals include Tehran mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, ex-foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, ex-commander of the Revolutionary Guards Mohsen Rezai and former parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.
Two figures seen as moderate conservatives are also on the list of approved candidates -- former nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, and Mohammad Gharazi, a former minister who served under Rafsanjani and under opposition leader Mousavi.
The reformists will have only one candidate in the election -- Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as first vice-president under Mohammad Khatami.