In Rafsanjani’s election to key post, Iran moderates see victory

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani's election to a key religious post on Tuesday is being seen here by moderates as a victory at a time when Tehran is facing both international pressure over its nuclear ambitions and US threats to brand its legendary Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organisation.

Rafsanjani, widely regarded as a pragmatist, was elected to head the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body that selects the nation's supreme religious leader. The new position further enhances his standing and was viewed by many analysts as at least a temporary obstacle to the hard-line conservatives running the government.

News of Rafsanjani's ascension came during a turbulent week of Iranian politics and indicated that the leadership may be seeking to counter international criticism. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been defiant in promoting the country's nuclear aspirations, but Tehran also made a leadership change in the Revolutionary Guard and permitted an American scholar facing allegations of espionage to leave the country.

The election of Rafsanjani amid this tenor is big news as the rational and moderate side of the [regime] will be more empowered," said Saeed Albehdashti, an activist with the reform-minded Imam Khomeini Followers Front.

Some analysts, however, suggest that Rafsanjani, seen as a clever political operative who understands the West, will have limited political latitude and remain answerable to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in recent years has increased his power and his belligerence toward Washington.

Rafsanjani's remarks immediately before his election to head the assembly underscored the sensitive role he may play in the balance between reformers and hard-liners, especially in protecting the country's nuclear program, which Washington charges is aimed at producing an atomic bomb.

US officials "made a big issue of the nuclear issue and they are mobilizing public opinion," Rafsanjani said. "Because of the dangers threatening us, we should pay attention to the supreme leader's decree for national unity and Islamic cohesion. We should not let ourselves be provoked and give an excuse for the enemy."

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