Iranian fury over claim 'Death to America' slogan faced the axe

AS THE Ayatollah Khomeini's wily right-hand man and president for eight years, Hashemi Rafsanjani is known as a "pillar of the revolution" and a "regime stalwart".

So he makes an unlikely newcomer on the Iran's long list of banned authors.

According to Iranian news agencies, publication of the latest volume of Mr Rafsanjani's memoirs has been suspended following uproar from ultra-conservatives allied to his chief rival, Iran's firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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The controversy was ignited by a claim in the book, Towards Destiny, that the late Ayatollah, father of the 1979 revolution, wanted to drop the regime's slogan, "Death to America", which is still widely chanted at Friday prayers.

The spat highlights intense power play in Tehran ahead of a key two-day meeting that begins today to appoint a new speaker of a powerful clerical body following the death of its veteran leader in July.

Mr Rafsanjani, a pragmatist who supports better ties with Washington, trounced hardliners in the battle for the Tehran seat on the Assembly of Experts in December and is now the favourite to become the panel's new speaker.

The 86-member clerical conclave has the power to reprimand or even dismiss the supreme leader and leadership of the body would give Mr Rafsanjani a strong lever to challenge Ayatollah Khamenei.

In recent months the hardline press has campaigned against Mr Rafsanjani, and the attacks on his memoirs are seen as part of that attempt to tarnish his reputation ahead of this week's assembly election.

In his book, Mr Rafsanjani recalls being approached in July 1984 by a deputy who proposed dropping the twin slogans, "Death to America" and "Death to the Soviet Union". Mr Rafsanjani wrote: "I said we have decided in principle. The Imam [Khomeini] has agreed, but we are waiting for a chance."

Nevertheless, the slogan was kept and Mr Rafsanjani has been accused of misinterpreting what Ayatollah Khomeini said and distorting his legacy by suggesting he was prepared to ditch the ritual denunciation of the "Great Satan".

An editorial in the hardline Kayhan newspaper, which is close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, insisted: "A quick look at the departed Imam's [Khomeini's] points of view, speeches, messages, letters, orders and guidelines... does not leave the slightest doubt that the great man considered enmity and disagreement with America to be the main strategic focus of the Islamic system."

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It was unthinkable that Ayatollah Khomeini would ever regard the "Death to America" slogan, a cornerstone of revolutionary rhetoric, as expendable, Kayhan thundered.

Iran's ministry of culture denied that Towards Destiny had been banned, but news agencies quoted ministry officials saying further publication and distribution had been suspended. Senior ayatollahs had to check the contents of the memoir, which had been published without official permits from bodies that verify whether quotations attributed to Ayatollah Khomeini are accurate, the reports said.