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By Yeganeh Torbati
DUBAI (Reuters) - Some 100 legislators are demanding a ban on two top independent candidates including ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from Iran's June presidential election in what may be a further move to thwart any brewing challenge to the clerical supreme leader.
The petition by parliamentarians to Iran's Guardian Council emerged three days after the electoral watchdog said outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may face charges for accompanying former aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, the other high-profile independent, to register on Saturday for the vote.
That warning raised speculation that the council would bar Mashaie. The parliamentarians - conservative hardliners loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - appeared to follow up by urging the watchdog to disqualify both independents.
After mass protests that followed the 2009 election, Khamenei may have counted on the June 14 vote to install a loyal conservative as president but the surprise candidacies of Rafsanjani and Mashaie scrambled that outlook.
In entering the fray, Rafsanjani - Iran's most prominent political grandee and a relative moderate - and Mashaie, former chief of staff to Ahmadinejad, have broadened what many thought would be a contest between rival pro-Khamenei "principlists".
Principlists dominate parliament and they lost little time in condemning Rafsanjani and Mashaie's electoral quest as the Guardian Council carries out its task of vetting all candidates.
In a letter to the Council, the legislators criticized Rafsanjani for having aligned with opposition forces, who hardliners refer to as "seditionists," after Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election over reformist challengers triggered months of popular unrest eventually suppressed by force.
"This all shows that he cannot be entrusted with a great responsibility like the presidency," the letter said, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.
"BLOCK DEVIANTS, SEDITIONISTS"
The petition further denounced Mashaie, who is seen by conservatives in Iran's political establishment to be leading a "deviant current" that promotes an unorthodox version of Islam and seeks to sideline clerical authority.
"The same ones who tried to replace Islamism with nationalism have ... gathered the corrupt and the liberals around them," the letter read. "The Guardian Council, as in the past, can block the way for deviants and seditionists."
The presidential field is otherwise top-heavy with conservatives loyal to Khamenei including Saeed Jalili, chief negotiator in talks with world powers on Iran's disputed nuclear program, and former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
The Guardian Council is due to issue a final list of approved candidates around May 23.
The council is a body of Islamic jurists and clerics seen to be generally within Khamenei's orbit but has said it is not susceptible to political pressure and would perform its vetting duties in accordance with the law.
Ahmadinejad, barred by Iran's constitution from running for a third consecutive term, was once the favorite of Khamenei's faithful but after repeatedly challenging the supreme leader's authority since 2009, he has fallen from political grace.
Authorities are mindful of pre-empting another eruption of protests like those that followed the 2009 vote, and critics say the government has sought to stifle journalists and activists ahead of the election.
On Wednesday Iranian Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said his ministry was ready to counter any plans to disrupt the elections.
"They have designs for these elections, but they will all be foiled," he said, according to Fars news agency. "Most of these plans are in the areas of media."
In a speech on Wednesday, Khamenei, Iran's most powerful man, said the people of Iran should vote for a "pious, revolutionary" candidate in order to ensure the failure of Iran's "enemy," the ISNA news agency reported.
But he also warned candidates not to promise too much in their campaigns. "In order to attract votes, sometimes candidates introduce slogans outside of the discretion of the president and the possibilities of the country," he said.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)