DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When Iran holds state-run ceremonies this week for an important Islamic feast day, there will be one very noticeable change: former President Hashemi Rafsanjani will not be leading the prayers.
The removal of Rafsanjani from the high-profile role is the latest slap by the ruling establishment against the single figure they may fear most – a powerful combination of elder statesman, super-wealthy tycoon and head of the only group empowered to remove Iran's supreme leader.
It's also a reflection of the Islamic leadership's deep worries about how to deal with a dissenter within the inner ranks.
"They cannot wipe him out, but they are trying to quarantine him," said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London.
Rafsanjani has appeared to side with critics alleging that the June presidential election was rigged and his ire drifted toward the very pinnacle of Iranian power: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
To Iran's ruling powers, the 75-year-old cleric represents a threat that's perceived as even more acute than the street protests and opposition leaders who emerged after the disputed June presidential elections.
He leads the only group capable of removing Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts, and there were strong hints that after the election he consulted with other members on the unprecedented step of ousting or reprimanding the supreme leader – whose most loyal supporters believe is answerable only to God.
Rafsanjani declined repeated requests by The Associated Press for an interview. But clearly Iran's rulers are doing all they can to keep him bottled up – part of a blanket offensive to muzzle opposition voices in public and in the media.
"There is probably no one that strikes more fear in the ruling elite than Rafsanjani," said Nourizadeh. "There is an effort to keep him out of the public eye as much as possible."
Rafsanjani was blackballed from leading Saturday's prayers for the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, one of the most important days on the Muslim calendar. He has led the ceremonies most years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Rafsanjani also has been dropped from his regular, once-a-week meetings with Khamenei and has been pushed off the rotation to lead Friday prayers at Tehran University – an event broadcast live around the country and often used as a platform for political messages.
State media now rarely mentions Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997. In an unusual bit of coverage Monday, Rafsanjani used a meeting with students to suggest Iran's leaders risk self-inflicted wounds if they continue to divide society.
"If we separate people from the system, this will damage it," Rafsanjani was quoted as saying.
It's a milder rendition of Rafsanjani's defining moment in the postelection crisis: a tearful sermon during Friday prayers in July as he described how Iran was being torn apart by "doubts" about the election results and the fierce crackdowns that followed.
As he spoke, security forces outside the huge prayer hall used tear gas and batons to disperse supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims he is rightful winner of the June 12 election. Another candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, was roughed up by hard-line vigilantes.
The bad blood between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad is not new.
Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani's presidential comeback bid in 2005. Then, during the latest campaign, Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and his family of unspecified "corruption" – apparently referring to their business empire that reportedly includes an airline, construction firms and a major slice of Iran's lucrative pistachio export market.
During the postelection protests, authorities briefly held Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, a pro-reform former lawmaker who strongly backed Mousavi. The detention was widely interpreted as a warning to Rafsanjani to stay out of the turmoil.
Rafsanjani still retains considerable political clout on paper. But he received two critical blows after the election.
Khamenei decided to throw his backing behind Ahmadinejad – effectively snubbing Rafsanjani and his complaints. Later, Rafsanjani fell short on efforts to mobilize enough moderate clerics in the Assembly of Experts to force possible concessions from Khamenei on the postelection clampdowns.
It left Rafsanjani being gradually nudged to the sidelines.
For the moment, he has remained relatively quiet as others – including another ex-president, Mohammad Khatami – turn to Web sites and blogs to send messages and rally the opposition.
But the broadsides come from mostly outside the system.
Iran's most senior dissident cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has claimed Iran's leadership have hijacked the Islamic Revolution in favor of a "despotic" rule. It echoes the appeals by Rafsanjani at his lone postelection Friday sermon.
Some analysts believe he is allowing others to do the talking while he works behind the scenes – perhaps already looking ahead to trying to unseat Ahmadinejad's backers running in parliamentary elections in 2012.
Iran's upheavals also have resulted in a bit of an image makeover for Rafsanjani, who was long viewed as too rich and too vested in the system to bring meaningful changes. He's now widely seen by reformists in Iran as a sympathetic patriarch with the credentials to help open dialogue with the United States and repair relations with the West.
"We can't forget that Rafsanjani is still a pillar of the regime," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of international affairs at Emirates University. "He still has a power base even if the authorities are trying to silence him. He's still a figure to reckon with."
Officials, however, appear willing to apply more pressure.
On Tuesday, Tehran's chief prosecutor challenged Rafsanjani's son, Madhi, to return to Iran to answer accusations of encouraging anti-government violence. The younger Rafsanjani has denied the charges, but has remained outside Iran since the summer.