Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani today lost his position as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a state body with the power to appoint and dismiss the country's supreme leader.
Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, an 80-year-old conservative cleric, was elected as the head of the assembly after Rafsanjani withdrew his candidacy.
"If [Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani] should be ready and accepts responsibility, I would certainly not nominate myself for the sake of ridding the differences and that this sacred institution would not be damaged from my side," he said.
Welcomed By Hard-Line Media
As the sole candidate, Kani received 63 votes of the assembly members. The ailing, wheelchair-bound cleric is not seen as an opposition supporter, and his election was welcomed by hardline media. He was not present at today's gathering.
New York-based Iran analyst and researcher Majid Mohammadi believes this could mean the end of the political career of Rafsanjani, who used to be one of Iran’s most influential political players.
“This means the political retirement of Hashemi, who was the second [most] powerful man after [the founder of the Islamic Republic] Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s and the second powerful man after Khameni in the 1990s,” he said.
The news comes as no surprise for many, as Rafsanjani has been under pressure by hardliners who have lobbied for his ouster in recent weeks.
Mohammadi says they wanted Rafsanjani out because he was not in line with the “one man rule” agenda of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“Khamenei’s plan from the beginning was to get rid of every center of power other than himself. Hashemi Rafsanjani was able to put question marks in front of Khamenei’s policies and decisions and challenge the military establishment. Rafsanjani also refused to explicitly condemn Musavi, Karrubi, and the Green Movement," he said.
Rafsanjani still retains his other post as the chairman of the Expediency Council, an arbitration body for settling legislative disputes.
Yet Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, believes Rafsanjani could also lose his position at the council next year when his term ends.
Khalaji says the departure of Rafsanjani from the political establishment strengthens the position of Khamenei and his hardline entourage, and allows them to advance their policies without “obstacles from the past.”
Rafsanjani has been criticized for being too close the reformist opposition and today's development is seen as a setback for the opposition camp.
Khalaji says as a result, the Iranian establishment has become “tougher and more fragile.”
“It is a positive point for the Green Movement because it is facing an establishment whose circle of decision makers has become narrower than before. At the same time it has to deal with an establishment against which no one is immune, not even Rafsanjani,” he said.
It remains to be seen whether Rafsanjani will now openly join the opposition and become a dissident, though Khalaji and Mohammadi say they doubt that would happen.
Rafsanjani has been critical of the government's crackdown on opposition protests following President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009.
During the election, he tacitly supported Mir Hossein Musavi, an opposition candidate and leader of the opposition Green movement.
Rafsanjani has also called on authorities to release political prisoners.
Rafsanjani's criticism of Ahmadinejad's government led to his removal as a leader of Friday prayers in Tehran.
Rafsanjani entered the Assembly of Experts in 2006 and was elected its chairman in 2007.
No Big Decision
Although in theory the assembly has the power to dismiss the supreme leader, in reality the clerical body has not taken any significant political decision since its establishment in 1983.
Rafsanjani's family too, has come under pressure in recent weeks. Last week, his son Mohsen was dismissed as the head of Tehran's subway. Rafsanjani's other son, Mehdi, is in exile in Britain, and reportedly faces arrest if he returns to Iran.
A video recently posted on YouTube shows a group of men verbally attacking Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh and chanting "Death to Hashemi."
Faezeh, a former lawmaker, has been detained several times for taking part in opposition protests.
The wealthy, 76-year-old cleric served as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. He ran for office again in the 2005 presidential elections, when he lost to Ahmadinejad in the second round.
As president, Rafsanjani encouraged rapprochement with the West. Prior to his presidency, Rafsanjani was speaker of parliament from 1980 to 1989.
written by Farangis Najibullah and Golnaz Esfandiari with RFE/RL's Radio Farda and agency reports