Iran bans photos of Ahmadinejad's rival Rafsanjani

Effort to undermine leading moderate include orders to editors at official government news agency not to call him an ayatollah.

TEHRAN // Editors at the government news agency IRNA have been ordered not to publish photos of the influential moderate cleric and politician Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. The directive is not binding on other Iranian news agencies or publications, but is important because IRNA is the country's official news agency.

In December the IRNA banned the use of the clerical title of ayatollah for Mr Rafsanjani and ordered news editors to use only the official title of "head of Expediency Council" to describe him. Since then, the title of hojjatol eslam, which denotes a rank below ayatollah, has consistently been used in IRNA stories for Mr Rafsanjani, who heads the Assembly of Experts, an elected council that has the power to appoint, supervise and even remove Iran's supreme leader.

The restriction has been attributed to the conflict between the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his longtime rival, Mr Rafsanjani, who implicitly supported Mir Hossein Mousavi during the disputed June presidential election. Mr Rafsanjani's Expediency Council has recently been drawing up a plan to modify the country's election law that it must propose to Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's supreme leader.

Details of the plan have not been officially disclosed, but according to unconfirmed reports, it endeavours to reduce the influence of the controversial election watchdog, the Guardian Council. The opposition accuses the Guardian Council of influencing the election results in favour of Mr Ahmadinejad in the June presidential elections, and hardliners in past contests. Ayatollah Khamenei, who appoints the six clerics of the council, however, is opposed to undermining the role of the election watchdog and is unlikely to agree to any checks on its power.

Mr Rafsanjani has also been under attack from hardliners over accusations against his children. Mr Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, is accused of inciting post-election protests and his son, Mehdi, who, like his sister ,supported Mir Hossein Mousavi during the presidential race, is accused of money laundering, falsifying information and embezzling US$2 million (Dh7.34m) in assets from the Iranian Fuel Conservation Organisation.

Hardline students in various universities have been collecting petitions to send to Interpol for the extradition of Mehdi, who left the country for Britain in September and has not returned. Ghasem Ravanbakhsh, the editor of the radical pro-Ahmadinejad weekly Partow Sokhan, has said that because of his support for Mr Mousavi and the controversy surrounding his children, Mr Rafsanjani "will definitely be left out of the country's political scene within the next six months".

However, Mr Rafsanjani, who is the only leader of the 1979 revolution besides Ayatollah Khamenei who still holds office, is seen by many as one of Iran's most influential men. The New York-based Eurasia Group, an independent think tank, recently placed Mr Rafsanjani among the 10 world leaders to watch in 2010, along with the Chinese leader Wen Jiabao, the US president Barack Obama, the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and Britain's Conservative Party leader, David Cameron.

"Rafsanjani could play a key role in shaping the Islamic republic's trajectory in 2010," Eurasia said in a statement about the man who still holds strong ties with the clerical elite in Qom, conservatives as well as reformists. According to the think tank, Mr Rafsanjani still retains significant powers although he has kept a low profile since the domestic upheaval began. "Rafsanjani is one of few Iranians who, because of their broad influence, could broker a pact among elite camps that would stabilise Iran [involving the release of political prisoners and other steps]. Alternatively, if Rafsanjani throws his support behind the opposition in 2010, civil unrest would probably increase," Eurasia said.