July 30, 2007 / 2:18 PM / 12 years ago

Influential Iranian cleric dies

TEHRAN (Reuters) - The conservative head of an Iranian clerical body which has the power to appoint and even dismiss the country’s supreme leader died on Monday after an illness, Iranian media said.

Ayatollah Ali Meshkini headed the 86-member Assembly of Experts, an elected body of senior Shi’ite Muslim theologians which chooses Iran’s supreme leader and supervises his work.

The official IRNA news agency said Meshkini, who was 86, had suffered from lung disease.

The assembly will pick its new head at its next regular meeting to be held in the Iranian month which starts in late August, the Mehr News Agency said. Meshkini was repeatedly re-elected to the post each year.

The assembly appointed Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader in 1989, following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but is not known to have intervened in any major political decisions since then.

The supreme leader is Iran’s highest authority, with the final say in all state matters.

Despite setbacks for allies of anti-Western President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in elections to the assembly in December, it remains in the hands of conservative clerics who have tended to keep it out of day-to-day politics.

Meshkini, who was arrested and sent into exile during the rule of the U.S.-backed shah, was taken to hospital in Tehran on July 19, the Mehr agency said. He was an ally of Khomeini, the founding father of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Analysts had predicted that Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president beaten by Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race, would temporarily fill the post if Meshkini died.

Rafsanjani, considered a pragmatist who backs better ties with the West, is deputy head of the body.

Meshkini, who used to lead Friday prayers in the holy Iranian city of Qom, had praised comments by Ahmadinejad, who often rails against the West and Israel and vows a return to the principles of the Islamic revolution.

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