The Guardian Council's statement on Sunday, issued through state media, contained no big surprises and gave the green light to the powerful ex-president Rafsanjani, 70, former chief of police Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, 43, and former head of state broadcasting Ali Larijani, 48.

It also cleared the former commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mohsen Rezaie, and Tehran's mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

All of these hail from factions of the conservative camp.

The only reformist cleared was former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi, a mid-ranking cleric.

The only other reformist to make an impression in opinion polls, former higher education minister Mostafa Moin, was banned from running.

Reformist crackdown

"The disqualification of Moin is an illegal and ugly move," Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, Karroubi's campaign chief was quoted as saying by the left-wing labour news agency.

Moin had stood up for the rights of students, often the spearhead of the reformist movement who have borne the brunt of crackdowns by the police and religious paramilitaries.

"The disqualification of [former higher education minister Mostafa] Moin is an illegal and ugly move"
Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, Mehdi Karroubi's campaign chief

Earlier in the day, Iran's main reformist party, which had backed Moin, said that banning reformists would damage electoral turnout.

Polls already suggest only 45-55% of the electorate will turn out and vote.

The Guardian Council has strict criteria for judging whether presidential hopefuls are of sufficient religious and political standing to run.

As in previous elections, all women were banned.

Many of those who put their names forward were highly optimistic, ranging from dissidents and teenage girls to a former national football goalkeeper.

Khatami disappointment

Conservatives regained parliament from reformists in elections in February 2004 after the Guardian Council banned thousands of liberal candidates from standing.

Khatami's reformist agenda
has met tough opposition

They are poised to extend their grasp on power to the presidency thanks to widespread disenchantment with President Mohammad Khatami's largely failed attempts at social and economic reform.

Rafsanjani is viewed as a pragmatic conservative who could be prepared to work towards a rapprochement with the United States and open up Iran's state-heavy economy.

Qalibaf has some following among the young because his command of the police force was seen to have relaxed state intrusion into private life.

Larijani is a close adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

He stepped down last year from 10 years as head of state broadcasting, where reformists accused him of bias against them and excessive religious programming.