Blow to hardliners as Rafsanjani is is elected to key Iranian assembly

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Iran's so-called "pragmatic" former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, has struck another blow against his hardline conservative rival, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by being elected head of an influential clerical body and confirming his position as second most powerful official in the Islamic republic after the Supreme Leader.

Mr Rafsanjani was re-elected to the Assembly of Experts last December. Yesterday, he received 41 votes to become speaker of the 86-member assembly, which supervises, elects and has the power to replace the Supreme Leader. Mr Rafsanjani is also head of the Expediency Council, a powerful arbitration body, and the Guardian Council, which vets parliamentary candidates. Elections are scheduled for March 2008. In a speech opening the assembly, Mr Rafsanjani said: "Now they [the US] have started an anti-Shia wave and we should be careful not to fall into their traps. We should not let ourselves be provoked and give an excuse for the enemy."

The election of Mr Rafsanjani, 73, will not affect Iran's position in the nuclear stand-off with the West. Policy is decided by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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