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Iran Exclusive: Rafsanjani Prepares for a Presidential Campaign...and a Challenge to the Supreme Leader

In recent days, we have been tracking the indications that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani --- reversing his position from March --- will stand in the Presidential election in June.

Now we can confirm, on the basis of absolutely reliable information, that Rafsanjani is close to a campaign.

What's more, he and his supporters are doing so in part as a challenge to the Supreme Leader. Further, others see the campaign as support for detained opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main challenge to President Ahmadinejad in the disputed election in 2009.

The information comes from a meeting last week in which Rafsanjani addressed about 100 clerics, scholars, and students. Reports at the time focused on the former President's criticism of the Ahmadinejad Government and his "coy" statement that "he had not said he was not running in the race".

In fact, Rafsanjani gave much stronger signals about his intentions. And others who spoke backed up those signals with a clear challenge not only to Ahmadinejad, but to the Supreme Leader.

Rafsanjani's message came in a declaration to the audience which contradicted reports earlier this year that he would not stand because of his age.

He said that, although he was nearly 80 years old, "I am strong enough to control Iran."

About four or others spoke to an enthusiastic audience. A leading reformist cleric implicitly referred to Mousavi, held under strict house arrest since February 2011, when he praised "the Prime Minister who had served under Imam Khomeini in the 1980s". The crowd loudly applauded the line.

The cleric also jabbed at the Supreme Leader with another historical reference. He mentioned Imam Khomeini's criticism in the 1980s of the Society of Combatant Clergy, "They cannot run a bakery"."

The Supreme Leader was a leading member of the Society at the time Khomeini made that criticism.

Another powerful challenge came from Fouad Sadeghi, editor of the site Baztab, which has been in the forefront of criticism of the Ahmadinejad Government --- to the point of accusations of corruption and manipulation of the vote in the 2009 election.

Sadeghi not only made clear that he backed Rafsanjani. He did so with an effective condemnation of the vote four years ago and support of the protests that followed.

The editor referred to Rafsanjani's controversial Tehran Friday Prayer of July 2009, in which the former President challenged Ahmadinejad's victory and upheld the right to demonstrate:

We all believed you. If Iran's policy was written according to your speech, everything would have been fine.

Rafsanjani endorsed the statement by smiling and shaking Sadeghi's hand.

Sadeghi concluded, "Please, Mr Hashemi Rafsanjani, run. Or persude [former reformist President] Mohammad Khatami to run."

Of course, it is impossible to say that, if Rafsanjani does formally announce his candidacy next week, that the former President will win. There are an array of powerful politicians who are now declaring that they want the Presidency.

The issue of whether Rafsanjani has a chance of success, however, cannot overshadow or obscure the significance of a Rafsanjani campaign. On repeated occasions since 2009, analysts have said that the former President is "finished" --- with the loss of positions such as Tehran Friday Prayer leader and head of the Assembly of Experts, threats in the media, and the imprisonment of his children --- or at least contained by the Supreme Leader's camp.

Rafsanjani is not contained. And his declaration last week indicates that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei may find it difficult to control not only the former President, but the election that is six weeks away.

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