(Reuters) - Elections on Friday for the body that selects Iran's supreme leader could be the last hurrah for Iran's best known political grandee, former president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has loomed large in the history of the Islamic Republic.
If Rafsanjani is unable to muster the votes to secure his seat on the Assembly of Experts, it could signal the beginning of his exit from political life in Iran.
Few have wielded such influence in modern Iran as the 81-year-old, but since 2009 he and his family have faced criticism from hardliners over their support for the opposition movement which lost that year's disputed election to former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
He has also rankled hardliners in the lead-up to this year's election to the assembly and parliament by openly criticizing the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates, for their large-scale disqualification of moderates.
For the Assembly election, Rafsanjani - known in Iran as 'the shark' for his smooth, unbearded face and his political guile - has allied himself with a moderate bloc of candidates which includes President Hassan Rouhani.
This bloc could play a key role in facing off against the hardliners who are likely going to dominate the 88-member Assembly, which serves for eight years.
For many ordinary Iranians, Rafsanjani, born into a wealthy pistachio farming family, has been a figure of suspicion and grudging respect for amassing a vast fortune.
He lost a presidential election in 2005 to Ahmadinejad, the little known mayor of Tehran at the time, a defeat that indicated a resentment toward Rafsanjani as part of the elite and the perception he served few interests other than this own.
"Rafsanjani doesn't have a good track record," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the U.S.-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.
"I don't think Iranian people have heard much of where he is. He’s the tossup."
If he does win a seat, Rafsanjani could use his political clout within the assembly - he was leader of the body from 2007 to 2011 - to influence the choice of the next supreme leader as he did in 1989 when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was selected.
"Rafsanjani is above all a pragmatist, a problem solver. He looks for ways to get things done," said Shaul Bakhash, a professor of Middle East history at George Mason University in Virginia.
FIGURE OF SUSPICION
Rafsanjani is remembered above all for persuading the ailing founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to accept a peace deal after eight brutal years of war with Iraq and save Iran from imminent collapse.
Within a year, Khomeini was dead. The Assembly of Experts appointed then-president Khamenei in a move orchestrated by Rafsanjani, largely, experts believe, because he thought he could influence him.
After Khamenei assumed the position of supreme leader, Rafsanjani was elected president for two terms.
The rivalry that ensued goes back to before Iran's revolution and is marked by vastly contrasting outlooks. Rafsanjani believed reform was the key to an enduring Islamic state while Khamenei feared it could hasten its demise.
“Had it not been for Rafsanjani, Khamenei would have never become supreme leader. Those close to Rafsanjani say he rues the day he helped anoint Khamenei,” said Karim Sadjadpour, Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“They are the epitome of frenemies,” he said.
As well as holding the position of head of the assembly until he was stripped of the post, Rafsanjani serves as the head of the Expediency Council, a body which is intended to resolve disputes between the parliament and Guardian Council.
His term as head of the Expediency Council will finish next year.
REVOLUTIONARY AND PRAGMATIST
Rafsanjani has been described as "a pillar of the revolution" but his well-documented pragmatic policies – economic liberalization, better relations with the West and empowering Iran's elected bodies - appeal to many Iranians.
In 2009, he incurred the wrath of hardliners by declaring the country was in crisis and calling for the immediate release of political prisoners and freedom of the press.
In December, he broke a taboo by mentioning that a group had been formed within the assembly to examine who could serve as Khamenei's replacement. In the same interview he also mentioned that he had supported the idea of a council of clerics ruling the country.
The leadership has put pressure on Rafsanjani through the arrest of his daughter Faezeh in 2012. Found guilty of “anti-government propaganda” after openly backing the opposition in 2009, she was jailed for six months.
Two days later, Rafsanjani's son Mehdi was imprisoned when he returned to Iran after an absence of three years. Mehdi was sentenced to 10 years on corruption and security charges and began serving his time in Evin prison last summer.
Still, Rafsanjani is a skilled behind-the-scenes operator in the labyrinthine world of Iranian politics and may have a final chance at transforming the system he helped build.
Saeed Leylaz, a Tehran-based political analyst who worked as an advisor to former president Mohammad Khatami, pointed out that while Rafsanjani lost his position as head of the assembly, in the last election he "won with an indisputable majority".
(Writing by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by William Maclean and Sonya Hepinstall)