TEHRAN, Iran, (AP) – Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani was picked Tuesday to head a key clerical body empowered with choosing or dismissing the country’s supreme leader — a vote seen as a victory for Iran’s moderate conservatives, state media reported.
Rafsanjani, long a major player in Iran’s complex political scene who already heads a powerful government body called the Expediency Council, received 41 votes to become the chairman of the Assembly of Experts.
The assembly is a group of 86 senior clerics charged with monitoring Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and choosing his successor. The Expediency Council arbitrates between legislators and another influential body called the Guardian Council, a hard-line constitutional watchdog.
The 73-year-old former president is considered more moderate than current hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani defeated Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, an extremist within the hard-line camp who received 34 votes for the Assembly of Experts leadership, state-run television reported.
While Jannati is among the proponents of the theory that the legitimacy of Iran’s clerics to rule the country is derived from God, Rafsanjani is believed to side with pro-democracy reformers who believe the government’s authority is derived from popular elections.
Analysts said Tuesday’s vote showed that moderate conservatives were gaining ground in Iran, where there is growing discontent directed at ruling hard-liners over rising tensions with the West and a worsening economy.
“Rafsanjani’s election is yet another no to the fossilized extremists such as Jannati and Mesbah Yazdi,” said political analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi, referring to Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who is Ahmadinejad’s spiritual mentor.
Analysts also said Rafsanjani’s election could pose a challenge to Khamenei, who as supreme leader has final say on matters of state.
When he was first chosen as supreme leader, Khamenei found himself in the shadow of then-President Rafsanjani. But Khamenei has since increased his power, and in recent years, Khamenei has allowed hard-liners to undermine Rafsanjani’s influence, part of his efforts to bring the former president under his control.
Analyst Saeed Leilaz noted that Rafsanjani has spoken lately of greater Assembly supervision over Khamenei. “The outside world must know that Rafsanjani’s election today is an important development in Iran,” he said.
Rafsanjani has long been an elusive inside player in Iran’s clerical leadership.
He has supported a policy of improving relations with the West including the United States. Though he backs the line rejecting a suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, he has shown a willingness to compromise in backroom negotiations on the nuclear program.
On Tuesday, Rafsanjani said that perhaps the Assembly would be a more active player on the national scene, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
“If the Experts Assembly wants to play a more active role in the country’s affairs, it has the religious and legal justification to do that. … Perhaps the assembly will do so in its upcoming term,” IRNA quoted Rafsanjani as saying just before the vote.
Rafsanjani succeeds Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the former Assembly of Experts head who died in July after a long illness. Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989-1997, is also considered an opponent to Ahmadinejad and lost to him the 2005 presidential runoff.
The Assembly of Experts is seen as a pillar of Iran’s Islamic regime because of its lofty duties: monitoring the all-powerful supreme leader and picking a successor after his death. But the assembly has not published a single public report about its monitoring of Iran’s supreme leader in the past three decades.
Rafsanjani, who himself has achieved the high Shiite clerical rank of ayatollah, had hinted in the past that the assembly has to publish reports to respect the public and inform the nation of its activities.
The body’s real clout only kicks in after the supreme leader is gone — a sort of Iranian version of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals when they gather to pick a new pope.
The assembly has done that only once since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. In 1989, it picked Khamenei to succeed his late mentor, the Islamic Revolution patriarch Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.