Iran: Rafsanjani Ouster a Defeat for Regime’s anti-Ahmadinejad Camp

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Prospects for significant reform within Iran’s regime suffered a serious blow, Tuesday, with the news that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani has been unseated as chairman of the powerful Guardian Council Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body of clerics which has the authority to unseat the country’s Supreme Leader — and which will pick the replacement for the 71-year-old incumbent head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Although he has been replaced by the moderate conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the move represents a victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hardline backers. Rafsanjani had been kingmaker in 1980 when he persuaded the Assembly to appoint Khamenei, who by standard of Shi’ite religious authority at that time was, essentially, a third-tier cleric. And he sided with the conservatives in the brutal crackdowns on reformist protest during the presidency of the more liberal Mohammed Khatami from 1997 to 2005. But the pragmatic conservative Rafsanjani led a faction of conservatives strongly opposed to the provocative foreign policies and economic mismanagement of President Ahmadinejad, who trounced him in the 2005 election. But Rafsanjani’s power within the clerical establishment had long been deemed a threat by both Ahmadinejad, and even by Khamenei after the two men parted ways.

In 2010 2010, Rafsanjani had backed the opposition candidate Mir Hossein Moussavi, and urged the regime to heed the calls of the Green Movement that emerged to protest alleged election fraud. But as the regime’s brutal crackdown suppressed that movement, whose most prominent leaders — former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi — are currently under arrest, Rafsanjani searched for compromise and even appeared to try and appease his conservative critics within the clergy by criticizing last month’s attempt to revive the protest movement.

Ahmadinejad and his backers, far stronger within the regime’s security establishment than they are among the clerics, had made clear their determination to limit the influence of their arch-nemesis Rafsanjani over the selection of the next Supreme Leader. And they appear to have succeeded, even if they haven’t necessarily put one of their own supporters in his position.

The latest ructions within the corridors of power are a reminder that the power struggle inside Iran over the past two years was never a simple “people vs. regime” affair: The leading figures of the Green Movement — Moussavi, Kharroubi and former President Mohammed Khatami — are pillars of the political establishment created by the Islamic Revolution, and Rafsanjani was the Islamic Revolution’s consummate insider.

Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, might have been endorsed by the clerical Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, but he has also clearly challenged and undermined the clerical leader, and is accused by many of the conservative clerics of seeking to undermine the role of the clergy in ruling Iran, seeking greater powers for the presidency. He’s also been accused of seeking to promote a more nationalist ideology than the Islamist one that has prevailed since 1979.

The power struggle within Iran’s regime is clearly growing more intense and more complex with presidential elections slated for 2013 in which Ahmadinejad (having served two consecutive terms) must choose a successor, and the failing health of the aging Supreme Leader suggesting that the Guardian Council Assembly of Experts will soon, only for the second time since 1980, have to pick a new head of state.