TEHRAN — The political obituary of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been written several 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. Mr. Rafsanjani then was 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.
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 this week — speculation is rising on who will be the ruling system's choice and, therefore, the instant front-runner.
Until recently, Mr. Rafsanjani had not been mentioned among the top possible contenders to replace Mr. Ahmadinejad, who must step aside because of term limits.
Closely held intentions
Mr. Rafsanjani, as always, keeps his intentions very closely guarded. He has not spoken publicly about aspirations of returning to the presidency 16 years after leaving office or becoming the powerful patron for a candidate.
That has not stopped his name from increasingly creeping into the mix — particularly after his high-profile role during the late August summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era group that Iran seeks to transform into an alternative voice to Western power as Tehran battles international 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 hard-liners. His participation in the next presidential elections is the main concern of hard-liners."
The thinking goes that Iranian leadership will do whatever it takes to avoid the chaos and violence that greeted Mr. Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 re-election.
The regime is likely to block any pro-reform candidates and possibly seek 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 Mr. Rafsanjani to pose as one of the few establishment leaders capable of reaching out to Iran's simmering opposition, while also trying to calm the West, where Mr. Rafsanjani built a reputation as a pragmatic leader during his years as president from 1989-97.
A potential run by Mr. Rafsanjani — or a protege 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 detente 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 theocratic rulers and their 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.
"The discourse of the Iranian leadership would differ" under Mr. Rafsanjani, said Hamid Reza Shokoohi, editor of the pro-reform Mardomsalari newspaper. "Both sides will be able to enter nuclear talks with more goodwill."
Mr. Rafsanjani has not taken a front-line role in Iran's showdowns over its nuclear program, which the West and allies fear could lead to nuclear weapons. Iran insists it seeks reactors for energy and medical use only.
Majid Deljou, a political columnist at Tehran's Hamshahri daily, said the main purpose of Mr. Rafsanjani's presence at the Nonaligned summit was to show unity among Iranian leaders. This holds especially true for Mr. Rafsanjani and Mr. Ahmadinejad, who have been in open feud since Mr. Rafsanjani lost the presidential race in 2005.
Mr. Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, spent a few hours in detention and his younger son, Mahdi, went into self-exile in 2009 over allegations of links to protests after Mr. Ahmadinejad's re-election. Mr. Rafsanjani's older son, Mohsen, was fired from his post as chief of Tehran's subway last year.
The treatment of his family has left Mr. Rafsanjani a bitter critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad and his bombastic style. Mr. Rafsanjani, meanwhile, has been quietly promoting his version of political healing, trying to redress claims by reformists that the ruling theocracy has hijacked Iran's elections.
"Free, transparent and lawful elections could solve a big portion of the country's problems," Mr. Rafsanjani told university students last week. "It increases trust among people and supporters of the system while disarming foreign enemies."