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Iran watchdog denies considering banning election candidate

Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani speaks during a conference at the Expediency Council's Research and Strategic Studies Center i
Former chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani speaks during a conference at the Expediency Council's Research and Strategic Studies Center i

By Yeganeh Torbati

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's Guardian Council said on Monday it was not considering barring any candidate from the June 14 presidential election, denying media reports that one of only two moderate contenders could be disqualified.

It will be Iran's first presidential vote since the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that spawned months of unrest by backers of losing reformists who said his victory was rigged. Security forces crushed the protests and the two reformist candidates in that vote have been under house arrest since 2011.

Iran's stand-off with the West over its disputed nuclear program has bubbled up in the election campaign. Sanctions imposed over its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and open up to U.N. nuclear inspectors are now hitting Iran's vital oil exports and have helped trigger a plunge in its rial currency.

The semi-official Mehr news agency, citing an unnamed source, said on Sunday the Guardian Council would consider barring moderate cleric Hassan Rohani from the presidential race for revealing what it said was classified information on the Islamic Republic's nuclear activity in a televised debate, and for some slogans chanted by his supporters during rallies.

The Guardian Council denied that report on Monday.

"A further review of the qualifications of candidates has not been raised and we deny such a thing," state news agency IRNA quoted Abbas Ali Kadkhodai as saying. He added, however, that the body retained the right to review candidates in accordance with Iran's presidential election law.

The Council surprised many last month when it banned former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running, a move seen as intended to eliminate an independent who might have challenged the authority of clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

MODERATE CRITICISES NUCLEAR HARDLINE

Rohani is the most prominent moderate approved to run by the Guardian Council, a vetting body made up of clerics and jurists. The slate of eight candidates is dominated by hardliners and conservatives close to Khamenei.

During a televised presidential debate on Friday, candidates clashed on Iran's nuclear policy, with nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili coming under fire from rivals over the lack of progress in talks with world powers.

Rohani, who was the nuclear negotiator under reformist former president Mohammad Khatami, said hardline stances had resulted in several rounds of U.N. sanctions.

"All of our problems stem from this - that we didn't make an utmost effort to prevent the (nuclear) dossier from going to the (U.N.) Security Council," said Rohani, who in 2003 negotiated a suspension in uranium enrichment with world powers, somewhat easing Western pressure on Tehran.

Enrichment activity resumed after the hardline populist Ahmadinejad became president in 2005.

"It is good to have centrifuges running, provided people's lives and livelihoods are also running," Rohani said, referring to Iran's campaign to develop advanced nuclear technology despite its worsening economic problems.

Nuclear policy, as with most sensitive foreign and domestic issues, is controlled by Khamenei's office rather than the president, who generally oversees domestic affairs especially the economy but has influence on broader policy.

At two rallies held in Tehran this month, Rohani's supporters chanted slogans calling for the release of political prisoners. Several Rohani staffers and supporters were arrested afterwards.

Opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been under house arrest for more than two years after calling the 2009 election fraudulent.

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