TEHRAN If Iran's hardline leadership wants to calm turmoil over a disputed presidential election, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani might be the man to broker a solution that would preserve the Islamic Republic he helped to found.
But if Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei opts to crush all opposition to the re-election of his fiery protege, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani may need all the influence and political skills he has accumulated since the 1979 revolution to survive.
The resilient 75-year-old cleric, now on tense terms with Khamenei -- the man he helped to the pinnacle of power after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini died in 1989 -- has fallen mysteriously silent since the June 12 election.
He provided strong, if backseat, support for the campaign of moderate former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, who says he was defrauded of victory in the presidential poll.
Rafsanjani has made no public statement since, prompting rumors that have him variously trying to mediate a compromise, orchestrating protests or even preparing a challenge to Khamenei via a powerful constitutional body of clerics that he chairs.
"For all this talk of stuff going on behind the scenes, I'm not seeing anything," said Anoush Ehteshami, an Iran expert at Durham University in England. "That means he has been unable to make any progress on whatever agenda he was pursuing."
So far Khamenei has shown a steely resolve, upholding the election, endorsing Ahmadinejad and authorizing the use of riot police and religious militia to quell mass demonstrations.
Iran's top legislative body, the Guardian Council, declared the election the "healthiest" since the revolution and a hardline cleric demanded Friday that "rioters" be executed.
Mousavi and some reformist leaders have remained defiant, by extension questioning Khamenei's authority and opening an unprecedented fissure in an Islamic system in which the Supreme Leader's word is supposed to be final and obeyed.
Such defiance could bring retribution in special courts being set up to deal with troublemakers, Ehteshami said.
"They can bring Rafsanjani in for fomenting instability and challenging the Leader," he said. "If they do that to Mousavi, then all of them will be vulnerable."
ARCHITECT OF ISLAMIC REPUBLIC
Baqer Moin, a biographer of Khomeini, said Rafsanjani was concerned not just about his political survival, but about the destiny of the Islamic Republic of which he was an architect.
"He doesn't want it to be 'ruined' by these hardliners. He thinks they have influenced Khamenei," the London-based expert added. "Of course he himself would be a victim if they succeed."
Rafsanjani is striving behind closed doors for a solution, several Iranian analysts said. "His main goal is to preserve legitimacy of the establishment, which has been harmed by the election row," said one analyst, who asked not to be named.
But Ahmadinejad has made no secret of his enmity for the former president, who served from 1989 to 1997 and whose bid for a come-back third term he defeated in 2005.
During a televised pre-election debate, Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and his sons of corruption, goading his target into writing a furious open letter of protest to Khamenei.
In an apparent warning shot at Rafsanjani, the authorities briefly detained his daughter Faezeh last week after she had addressed Mousavi supporters defying a ban on election protests.
Ahmadinejad and his hardline backers in the Revolutionary Guard and basij militia view Rafsanjani as typifying an older rank of leaders accused of putting personal gain above Islamic ideals at the expense of Iranians trying to make ends meet.
Rafsanjani believes Ahmadinejad's populist, free-spending policies are damaging the economy and his combative approach to foreign affairs has needlessly antagonized the West.
Moin said Ahmadinejad would have eliminated Rafsanjani as a political player long ago if he could have done so, but the older man was a tested survivor who had his own national clout.
Rafsanjani is not the only heavy-hitter in Ahmadinejad's sights. Critics of the vote and its violent aftermath include dissident Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, ex-President Mohammad Khatami, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani and others.
"These are all very powerful figures," Ehteshami said. "But Ahmadinejad has got the military muscle and, for the moment at least, the Leader's support. The critical thing will be what happens when he takes his cabinet ... to parliament."
Rafsanjani chairs two constitutional bodies, including the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which appoints, supervises and can sack the Supreme Leader -- a power never exercised.
Iranian analysts say the pragmatic politician is likely to show caution in current sensitive times, not go on the offensive.
Moin said it was not yet clear if the leadership was interested in eventually rebuilding bridges with the opposition.
"If Rafsanjani is now needed to come back and help with a solution, that means he is still an important arbiter," he said.
"He could play an important role because he is the key link between the leadership, Khamenei and many of the ulema (religious scholars), as well as the reformists."
(Writing and additional reporting by Alistair Lyon; editing by Samia Nakhoul)