Former Iranian president criticizes hardliners for eliminating rivals

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attends Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (Reuters)

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin DUBAI (Reuters) - Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Monday criticized the disqualification of reformist candidates by hardliners from national elections later this month, deepening a dispute between the two factions. The Guardian Council, a vetting body made up of clerics and jurists, excluded thousands of parliamentary hopefuls and four-fifths of the candidates for the body that will choose Iran's next Supreme Leader. The move was a setback to moderate President Hassan Rouhani and Rafsanjani, his powerful ally who was president between 1989 and 1997. Among those excluded was Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the Islamic Republic's first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who has close ties to reformists. "They disqualified the grandson of Imam Khomeini, who is the most similar person to his grandfather," Rafsanjani said, according to ISNA news agency, at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of Khomeini's return to Tehran from France during the 1979 revolution. "Who decided you are qualified to judge the others? Who gave you the right to take all the guns, have all the Friday prayer platform and run state television?" he added, referring to hardliners. Rafsanjani's comments indirectly target Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and who appoints the head of state television, the Friday prayer leaders around the country and half of the members of the Guardian Council. Rafsanjani, 78, was Friday prayer leader in Tehran before he was dismissed from the position when he backed the opposition movement whose protests were crushed after the last, disputed election in 2009. The Guardian Council disqualified him from the next presidential election. Elections to the 290-seat parliament and 88-member Assembly of Experts are due to take place on Feb. 26. Iran's success in winning an end to international sanctions in exchange for curbing its disputed nuclear program is expected to intensify a power struggle within an elite split into conservative and moderate-reformist factions. Khamenei grudgingly allowed Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal after the moderate cleric won a landslide election in 2013 on a pledge of easing Iran's isolation abroad and repression at home. But hardliners now fear that voters, hoping living standards can rise with sanctions out of the way, will reward pro-Rouhani candidates in the elections, with the vote for the Assembly of Experts in particular crucial in shaping Iran's future path. (This version of the story corrects election time in lead , Rafsanjani reference in third paragraph) (Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, editing by Sami Aboudi and Angus MacSwan)