Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Iranian Regime Muzzles Critical Cleric

Tweet It!

The Associated Press

When Iran holds state-run ceremonies this week for an important Islamic feast day, there will be one very noticeable change: former President Hashemi Rafsanjani will not be leading the prayers. The removal of Rafsanjani from the high-profile role is the latest slap by the ruling establishment against the single figure they may fear most - a powerful combination of elder statesman, super-wealthy tycoon and head of the only group empowered to remove Iran's supreme leader. It's also a reflection of the Islamic leadership's deep worries about how to deal with a dissenter within the inner ranks. "They cannot wipe him out, but they are trying to quarantine him," said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London. Rafsanjani has appeared to side with critics alleging that the June presidential election was rigged, and his ire drifted toward the very pinnacle of Iranian power: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. To Iran's ruling powers, the 75-year-old cleric represents a threat that's perceived as even more acute than the street protests and opposition leaders who emerged after the disputed election. He leads the only group capable of removing Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts, and there were strong hints that after the election, he consulted with other members on the unprecedented step of ousting or reprimanding the supreme leader - whose most loyal supporters believe is answerable only to God.

Rafsanjani declined repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview. But Iran's rulers are clearly doing all they can to keep him bottled up: Rafsanjani was blackballed from leading Saturday's prayers for the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the most important days on the Muslim calendar. He has led the ceremonies most years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Rafsanjani also has been dropped from his regular, once-a-week meetings with Khamenei and has been pushed off the rotation to lead Friday prayers at Tehran University - an event broadcast live around the country and often used as a platform for political messages. State media now rarely mention Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997. In an unusual bit of coverage Monday, Rafsanjani used a meeting with students to suggest Iran's leaders risk self-inflicted wounds if they continue to divide society. "If we separate people from the system, this will damage it," Rafsanjani was quoted as saying.