More than 2,000 reformers seeking democratic changes within Iran's hard-line ruling establishment have been disqualified from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections, a top interior ministry official said.

The disqualification of reformist candidates removes challenges to hard-liners — including those allied with embattled President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — vying for the parliament seats in the crucial March 14 election.

Parliamentary elections are seen as a key test of Ahmadinejad's hold on power and a harbinger for the 2009 presidential elections. The hard-line president has come under increasing criticism — from both allies and opponents — about his failure to fix Iran's economic problems, which have most recently led to heating gas shortages.

Out of an initial 7,200 prospective candidates registered, some 5,000 remain in the running, Ali Reza Afshar, a top Interior Ministry official in charge of elections, said Wednesday.

Afshar didn't rule out reversing some disqualified candidates, and he said that those disqualified have the right to appeal. The hard-line constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, will announce a final list of approved candidates on March 5.

Council's chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a key Ahmadinejad ally, said last month that any candidate determined by the Council to be disloyal to the principles of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution would be barred from running.

Many members of the Guardian Council were chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.

The disqualifications were reminiscent of 2004, when the Council barred thousands of reformists from running in that year's parliament elections, allowing hard-liners to regain control of the 290-seat legislative body. The supreme leader largely supported the Council.

The disqualifications have provoked widespread condemnation from reformists.

Former President Mohammad Khatami — himself a reformist — had in advance warned of possible disqualifications and said the government had no right to deprive Iranians the right to run in elections.

The government, meanwhile, said it mailed letters to prospective candidates informing them of their disqualification. In Tehran, some 400 out of 1,400 hopefuls were disqualified, the government said in a statement carried by the official IRNA news agency.

"Worrying reports have come true. The number of candidates disqualified is surprising," said Abdollah Naseri, spokesman for an umbrella group of 21 reformist factions.

Hardest hit in the vetting process are the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), Iran's largest reformist party, and the Islamic Revolution Mojahedeen Organization (IRMO), another reformist faction.

"All prospective candidates fielded by IIPF and IRMO in Tehran have been rejected," Saeed Shariati, a top Front figure said Wednesday. "Of 200 IIPF hopefuls registered throughout Iran, 190 of them have been disqualified."

Some of those disqualified were key lawmakers or cabinet ministers during the tenure of Khatami, who is a reformist.