Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani

Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani replaced Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani as the head of Iran’s Assembly of Experts today after Hashemi,  a moderate cleric that has been targetted with hardliner attacks for his alignment with the opposition, withdrew his candidacy.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani opened the Assembly’s ninth session and announced he would withdraw in favour of Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani in order to “clear this holy institution of divisions.”

He added that he has never sought any government post unless the Supreme Leader had obliged him to do so, and he will not run in any other elections.

Some analysts interpret Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s withdrawal from the Assembly of Experts as a sign of his gradual removal from power in the Islamic Republic.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani tacitly backed the opponents of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections. And even after the Supreme Leader confirmed Ahmadinejad’s victory and called for the suppression of protesters who claimed the ballot was rigged, Rafsanjani called for a recount and the release of political prisoners.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani did not attend the inauguration of Ahmadinejad and during the past year of protests he has implicitly supported the cause of supporters by calling for moderation and release of political prisoners.

Following the renewal of street protests on February 14, pro-government forces stepped up their attacks on Ayatollah Rafsanjani and his family. Public television showed crowds demanding his dismissal from government posts and calling out “Death to Hashemi!” He daughter was verbally assaulted while attending a funeral at a holy shrine and most recently his eldest resigned his post as the CEO of Tehran Subway System citing lack of cooperation from government at the root of his decision.

Aside from the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts which he left today, Ayatollah Rafsanjani is also chairman of the Expediency Council, which mediates between the parliament and the Guardian Council.

Rafsanjani will remain as a member of the 86-member Assembly of Experts, the body of religious scholars charged with monitoring the Supreme Leader.

During the unrest of the past year, the opposition has accused the Assembly of shirking its responsibility to adequately evaluate the actions of the Supreme Leader.

Ayatollah Dastgheib, who represents Shiraz in the Assembly of Experts, did not participate in today’s session, saying he had not received the customary invitation.

Ayatollah Dastgheib has very openly criticized the government for confronting protesters over the past year with violence and he has openly called for the release of MirHosein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who were put under house arrest on February 14 and been completely cut off from the public. The outspoken critic of the government has also reproached the Assembly of Experts for not holding the Supreme Leader to task for his role in throwing the country in crisis.