Iran's second-most powerful political figure, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was re-elected March 10 as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts (AoE). This 86-member clerical body chooses Iran's supreme leaders, over whom it has oversight powers, including the power to remove the apex leader. Rafsanjani's deepening hold over the political system comes at a time that is critical for Iran, both domestically and on the foreign policy front. Long a deputy chairman of the AoE, Rafsanjani became its chairman in September 2007
upon the death of his predecessor. The AoE serves an eight-year term; the last elections to the body were held in December 2006, in which Rafsanjani's pragmatic conservative allies trounced the ultraconservatives close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
. The leaders of most powerful body in the Iranian political system are selected more frequently, however. Rafsanjani appears to have consolidated his grip over the AoE, and in turn over the Iranian political establishment. Several of his allies have secured the leadership posts in the assembly. Along with Rafsanjani's re-election, judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and his predecessor, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, were elected as first and second vice-chairman of the assembly, respectively. Rafsanjani also chairs the Expediency Council, Iran's top body for political arbitration, and in August 2005, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
granted him oversight powers over Iran's three branches of government. As leader of the AoE, Rafsanjani is well-positioned to become supreme leader should Khamenei die or become incapacitated. Rafsanjani's increasing power comes at a critical juncture for Iran, in terms of both domestic politics and foreign policy. The Islamic republic will hold presidential elections in June. A movement by pragmatic conservative and more liberal forces to unseat Ahmadinejad is gaining momentum, a process in which Rafsanjani, as the president's most powerful opponent, is deeply involved. On the foreign policy front, the United States is moving toward engaging Iran diplomatically. Rafsanjani has just returned from a rare weeklong trip to neighboring Iraq aimed at laying the groundwork for a U.S.-Iranian settlement on the balance of power in Baghdad, which could pave the way for improved bilateral relations between Washington and Tehran. Unlike Ahmadinejad and his camp, Rafsanjani and his fellow pragmatic conservatives believe Tehran should tone down the ideological rhetoric and hard-line positions in order to reach a settlement with the West. Unlike the ultraconservatives, the more experienced moderate conservatives feel that Iran is at a major crossroads and should choose to lock in the gains of the past several years, especially in regard to Iraq. The pragmatists criticize the hard-liners' policy of playing hardball at the expense of Iran's already-faltering economy. The complexity of the Iranian political system
and the deep factional divisions of the conservative clerical establishment
, however, mean that though Rafsanjani's increased power is significant, it does not indicate an inevitable triumph for Iran's pragmatists. Much will depend upon the outcome of the June presidential vote. Despite the sizable opposition to Ahmadinejad and the entry of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a popular reformist seeking a new term, there is no one candidate that has emerged as a strong opponent to Ahmadinejad. Given his loss to Ahmadinejad in the last election, his own unpopularity, and the greater power of his current position — which gives him the power to play kingmaker and overseer — Rafsanjani is not interested in the post of chief executive. The outcome of the June presidential election thus remains uncertain — meaning Iran's domestic politics and foreign policy will stay in flux until the second half of the year.