TEHRAN Iran's great political survivor, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, may be removed from one of his remaining positions of influence this week as hardliners seek to punish him for expressing sympathy for the opposition.
The former president may be voted out of the chair of the state Assembly of Experts, a blow to his attempt to play a bridging role between dominant Islamic hardliners and the increasingly marginalised reformist opposition.
Defeat for Rafsanjani would consolidate the ascendancy of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and make even less likely any reconciliation with reformists, whose leaders face calls to be prosecuted for alleged sedition, political analysts said.
Tuesday's vote at the Assembly, an elected body of clerics which appoints, supervises and in theory can sack the Supreme Leader, will have little immediate political impact. But it would tilt the country's power struggle if Rafsanjani is voted out, indicating a further strengthening of the hardline camp.
"The result of tomorrow's election will be very meaningful for the future trend of the country's policies," said analyst Mashaollah Shamsolvaezin. "It will show us what direction the current struggle is moving and which side has the upper hand."
Rafsanjani has proved a canny navigator of Iran's politics currents since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. One of the closest aides to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he was the first president of the post-Khomeini era in 1989-97.
But his political fortunes have since waned as his family's wealth and influence antagonised opponents on both sides, and he lost an attempted presidential comeback in 2005 to populist outsider Ahmadinejad, who accused him publicly of corruption.
"The bottom line is the intent to sideline a centrist and relatively powerful cleric and his supporters and, in the process, narrow the already narrow sphere of political competition even further," said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.
Rafsanjani's expression of sympathy for opposition demonstrators after Ahmadinejad's re-election in June 2009 put him beyond the pale for hardliners, who considered the biggest protests since the revolution as an attempt to overthrow the Islamic system, with the backing of Iran's foreign enemies.
He was stripped of his role as a Friday prayers leader but remained head of the Assembly which he has chaired since 2007. Losing that post would deprive him of a potentially influential position in shaping the eventual succession to Khamenei, 71.
He still heads the Expediency Council, which arbitrates in disputes on legislation between different state institutions and has made several rulings contrary to Ahmadinejad's wishes.
Iranain media have reported that Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, another senior Khomeini-era cleric, may challenge Rafsanjani for the chair of Assembly, a move welcomed by many hardline politicians and commentators.
In response, Rafsanjani accused his critics of underhand tactics in a statement issued by his office.
"Those who paid excessive attention to the Assembly's chairmanship these days, using unusual and weird methods, should know that the Assembly ... is a heavyweight in the country and supporters of a particular faction should not let themselves forget ethics and fairness just for the sake of their opposition to a (political) figure," the statement said.
The timing of Tuesday's internal election -- which happens every two years -- comes at a particularly sensitive time.
The leaders of the reformist Green movement have been held incommunicado since mid-February after calling supporters back onto the streets for the first time since the anti-Ahmadinejad protests were crushed at the end of 2009.
Rafsanjani's mild criticism of the new protests, which began on Feb. 14, did not silence his hardline critics.
"Today his reputation does not rest on political moderation, but is based on a shop window full of items that look and smell like support for a movement accused of creating sedition," Resalat daily said in an editorial predicting the Assembly would condemn his failure to explicitly condemn the reformists.
While relatives say the Green leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi have been secretly arrested -- something the government denies -- Rafsanjani's family has also come under fierce pressure.
His daughter Faezeh Hashemi, a women's rights activist, was briefly detained during one of the Green demonstrations.
One son, Mehdi, risks arrest for his alleged role in the 2009 protests if he returns from self-exile in London. Another, Mohsen, resigned from his job as head of the Tehran Metro on Friday after a lengthy dispute with Ahmadinejad.
(Writing by Robin Pomeroy; editing by Paul Taylor)