Old hand proves a calming force amid fever-pitch politics
The fevered state of Iran's politics these days can be gauged from one simple observation; it is barely possible for one of its leaders to sneeze without triggering a frenzy of speculation and rumour.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and titanic pillar of the country's Islamic ruling system, proved the point this month when he cancelled an eagerly awaited trip to the holy city of Qom. Fresh from reasserting his status by topping the poll at recent elections for the experts' assembly - an important clerical body - he was set to make a keynote speech and meet senior ayatollahs during a two-day visit. But at the last minute, his office called it off, saying - in echoes of the explanations that once accompanied the absences of Soviet Union leaders - that Mr Rafsanjani had a 'cold'.
As in Soviet times, the official version was not universally accepted. The grapevine suggested more Machiavellian motivations for Mr Rafsanjani's indisposition. It was said that the man who had masterminded the country's military effort in its 1980-88 war with Iraq was engaged with the urgent business of forming a committee to oversee Iran's nuclear negotiations amid increasing threats from the US and Israel.
Last month's UN Security Council resolution imposing sanctions over Tehran's refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and a newly belligerent stance from the Bush administration brought a need for his calming influence in foreign affairs as an alternative to the fiery statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The speculation only added to an already febrile atmosphere. It followed rumours that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had died after a supposed recurrence of prostate cancer, for which he is believed to have been successfully treated several years ago. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's final arbiter in all matters of state, subsequently reappeared to insist that Iran's nuclear activities would continue despite western opposition.
Yet while reports of Ayatollah Khamenei's demise have proved, a la Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated, those concerning Mr Rafsanjani, 73, have more credence. Whatever the reasons for his no-show in Qom, one thing is clear; a man written off just over a year ago after his crushing presidential election defeat to Mr Ahmadinejad now has a new lease of political life. So, too, do his ideas.
In a reversal of fortune, Mr Rafsanjani's resurgence has occurred - at least in part - as a result of Mr Ahmadinejad's fall from grace and favour. That development is a mirror of the 2005 presidential election, when Mr Ahmadinejad benefited from Mr Rafsanjani's unpopularity resulting from myriad political sleaze allegations.
Now, after 17 months of populist gestures and radical rhetoric, it is the president whose credibility is in free fall, accused of failing to deliver economic promises and of dragging Iran into a deepening conflict with the west with his intemperate statements on global issues.
Under Mr Ahmadinejad's management, economic growth and investment have slumped while inflation has surged. His campaign pledge to redistribute the country's oil wealth looks wan in the face of falling world crude oil prices.
Supposedly like-minded legislators in the fundamentalist-dominated parliament are in open revolt. Mr Ahmadinejad first tried to deny prices were rising and later blamed previous governments. A petition to summon him to answer questions on the economy has gathered 50 signatures. It needs 72 to be effective. Meanwhile, proceedings are under way to impeach four of his ministers accused of incompetence.
Seasoned parliamentarians say regret has reached unprecedented levels. 'Even though the majority of [members of parliament] are fundamentalists like Ahmadinejad, the level of dissatisfaction with him is much higher than previous governments faced from parliament,' said Akbar al-Alami, a reformist MP. 'The criticisms go beyond political groupings ... it has reached a critical level.'
Equally damaging is the growing conviction that his aggressively defiant posture on the nuclear issue has damaged Iran's interests.
The final say on a programme many in the west believe is aimed at building atomic bombs lies with Ayatollah Khamenei. Yet many in the regime's upper echelons blame the president's outbursts for the sanctions, which they fear could set Iran on a slippery slope to more crippling embargos or even a military clash with the US or Israel. It is these fears that have lent renewed credibility to Mr Rafsanjani's support of caution and compromise.
Mr Rafsanjani's allies say he cannot openly express his misgivings about Mr Ahmadinejad's approach. His one public statement last week condemned the Bush administration for a 'new adventurism' in Iraq after it boosted troop levels and seized five Iranians in Irbil on suspicion of arming Shiite insurgents.
But behind the scenes, he is exerting renewed influence. The Expediency Discernment Council - the powerful body Mr Rafsanjani now heads - is reported to have been given the task of scrutinising the president's performance, paying special attention to the impact of his strident statements on Iran's relations abroad.
At some point, according to those close to him, Mr Rafsanjani thinks Iran may have to bow to demands to suspend uranium enrichment, which Mr Ahmadinejad has dismissed out of hand. Such a climb down is seen as necessary to avoid an escalating confrontation that many high officials fear could lead to the collapse of Iran's Islamic system.
'Before sanctions were imposed, Rafsanjani believed it was possible to build mutual trust between ourselves and the west and thereby fulfil Iran's enrichment aims,' said Mohammad Atrianfar, a respected political commentator and associate of Mr Rafsanjani. 'Now his aim is limiting the impact of the sanctions and getting Ayatollah Khamenei and the government to accept that the country is at a dangerous point. He is trying to persuade them that if Iran faces any crisis which damages the economic life of the people, then there is a possibility of the whole system collapsing.'
The question now is where all this leaves Mr Ahmadinejad. Some observers believe his credibility cannot recover. Ayatollah Khamenei, on whose patronage his fate rests, is believed to have taken stock of the president and distanced himself. Mr Ahmadinejad's difficulties have evoked the spectre of impeachment and removal from office. Ayatollah Khamenei is thought to be reluctant to sanction such a step, more out of concern for the trauma it could inflict on the system than from personal loyalty to the president.
Yet if the economy continues to deteriorate, the presently unthinkable could be given consideration.
'The supreme leader is absolutely sensitive to the rate of inflation,' said Saeed Leylaz, an economic analyst. 'He issued one public criticism, three months ago when inflation was lower than it is now. If it is even higher three months from now, then surely Ayatollah Khamenei will not remain silent.'