TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The political obituary of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been written a number of times: when he lost a comeback presidential bid, when he was dumped from leading Friday prayers at Tehran University, when he was pushed out as head of a panel that will pick Iran's next supreme leader.
Yet there he was last month walking alongside Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and greeting dignitaries at a global gathering of so-called nonaligned nations in Tehran. Rafsanjani was then seated next to the main VIP guest, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
It was another renaissance moment for Iran's great political survivor. But this time it carried added intrigue as a possible sign the 78-year-old eminence grise, who favors a moderate approach toward the West, could have at least one major power play left.
With elections in nine months to select the successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who is making his last presidential visit to the U.N.'s General Assembly next week — speculation is rising on who will be the ruling system's choice and, therefore, the instant front-runner.
Until recently, Rafsanjani had not been mentioned among the top possible contenders to replace Ahmadinejad, who must step aside because of term limits. Rafsanjani, as always, keeps his intentions very closely guarded. He hasn't spoken publicly about aspirations to return to the presidency 16 years after leaving office, or becoming the powerful patron for a candidate.
That hasn't stopped his name from increasingly creeping into the mix — particularly after his high-profile role during the late August summit of the Nonaligned Movement, a Cold War-era group that Iran seeks to transform into an alternative voice to Western power as Tehran battles pressures over its nuclear program.
"He appeared as the second most powerful figure of the ruling establishment for international guests," wrote Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of politics at Tehran University, in a post on his website. "This was a very heavy and bitter blow to hardliners. His participation in the next presidential elections is the main concern of hardliners."
The thinking goes that Iranian leadership will do whatever it takes to avoid the chaos and violence that greeted Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election. That means likely blocking any pro-reform candidates and possibly seeking a more centrist figure than those mentioned as apparent hopefuls, including Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei.
This could open room for a Rafsanjani redux as one of the few establishment leaders capable of reaching out to Iran's simmering opposition while also trying to calm the West, where Rafsanjani built a reputation as a pragmatic leader during his years as president from 1989-97.
A potential run by Rafsanjani — or a protégé he backs — would likely be received favorably in Washington and among Western allies. Although part of the ruling system for decades, he is also widely viewed as more flexible and possibly more in tune with the West than most of the other old guard.
"We need détente and delicacy in our relations with the world," said a message on his personal website last month.
His family has extensive international ties through university studies in Britain and a vast business network that includes construction companies, an auto assembly plant, real estate holdings and a private airline. In 2003, he was listed among Iran's "millionaire mullahs" by Forbes magazine.
His image, however, also has darker undertones. He was named by prosecutors in Argentina among Iranian officials suspected of links to a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Some Iranian reformers accused him of a role in the slaying of liberals and dissidents during his presidency.
In many ways, the presidency is less powerful than his oligarch status. The president has a limited say in critical policy decisions such as the nuclear program or military affairs, which are overseen directly by the ruling system and its protectors. Yet the president is seen as the country's main international envoy and is often used to set the tone for dealings with the West.