Iran said Tuesday the moderate ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was among those barred from standing in next month's presidential election, provoking a sharp reaction from Washington.
Rafsanjani and a controversial aide of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been ruled unsuitable, the interior ministry said Tuesday.
The Guardians Council, a conservative-dominated vetting body, omitted Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, from its list of eight approved candidates.
It also excluded Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, a confidant of Ahmadinejad and his former chief of staff.
The approved list of candidates for the June 14 election is dominated by conservatives close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ultimate decision-maker in the Islamic republic.
The council gave no explanation for the disqualifications.
Rafsanjani's late registration on May 11 had polarised Iran's complex political system, with marginalised reformists backing him while ultra-conservatives questioned his motives for a political comeback.
A heavyweight until eight years ago when Ahmadinejad beat him in the 2005 presidential election, Rafsanjani has lost much of his political stock in recent years.
In particular, he drew the ire of the ruling establishment in 2009 when he openly questioned the handling of the controversial election that had given Ahmadinejad a second term.
That vote provoked massive street protests and claims of fraud, which were crushed in a heavy-handed crackdown.
Rafsanjani, who will turn 79 in August, currently chairs the Expediency Council, Iran's highest political arbitration body.
Guardians Council spokesman Abbasali Kadkhodai, speaking to state television and without naming Rafsanjani, said frailty and old age had been factors in the eliminations.
Mashaie, the other main candidate disqualified, had been personally endorsed by Ahmadinejad.
His exclusion was not unexpected, however, as he is seen as too liberal, considered a danger to the Islamic revolution by regime insiders, and is accused of driving a wedge between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.
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Mashaie said he would seek to reverse his disqualification.
"I deem my disqualification an injustice. I will seek its resolution through" Khamenei, he told the Fars news agency. "God willing, it will be resolved."
The United States accused the clerical leadership of seeking to tighten its grip on power.
"It appears that Iran's unelected Guardian Council, which is unaccountable to the Iranian people, has disqualified hundreds of potential candidates based on vague criteria," State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said.
"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," he told AFP in an email.
In a statement issued in Paris, an exiled Iranian opposition group described the rejection of Rafsanjani's candidacy as a "masquerade" that would "shrink and fracture the regime's powerbase".
"Khamenei had no choice but to eliminate both candidates... he is trying in vain to forestall the regime's overthrow through contraction and the purging of his rivals," the People's Mujahedeen of Iran said in a statement.
The disqualifications appeared to put lead nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a figure close to Khamenei, in the front seat.
The Guardians Council is tasked with vetting candidates to ensure they meet the constitutional requirement of being faithful to the principles of the Islamic republic.
It comprises religious conservatives who are all directly or indirectly appointed by Khamenei.
Two figures seen as moderate conservatives are 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 Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is currently under house arrest.
The reformists will have only one candidate in the election in Mohammad Reza Aref, who served as first vice president under president Mohammad Khatami.
Some 686 hopefuls, including 30 women, most of them politically unknown, had registered to contest the election.
Ahmadinejad is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. His two-term presidency has left the Islamic republic isolated internationally and struggling to cope with harsh economic sanctions over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.