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Fresh political battle erupts in Iran over leading dissident

TEHRAN, Aug 30 (AFP) - A leading Iranian dissident close to reformist President Mohammad Khatami is facing fresh allegations of conspiracy against the Islamic republic's clerical regime, press reports said Monday.

The charges against Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri come amid a renewed political battle over the one-time favourite son of the regime, who has remained influential despite being under house arrest for the last 10 years, ahead of next spring's key elections for parliament.

In an open letter published in the hardline Jomhuri Islami paper, two radical clerics accused Montazeri of managing a "nest of plotters" at his family home.

The two, both former ministers, said the dissident had conspired against the regime from his house in the holy city of Qom, the spiritual stronghold of Iran's conservative Shiite Moslem leadership.

Montazeri was placed under house arrest a decade ago when similar charges led to him being pushed aside as next in line to become Iran's supreme leader after the Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

He was replaced as Khomeini's designated successor with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic republic's current supreme leader, but at age 78 remains an immensely respected figure in the reform movement.

As reformers begin jostling for position with conservatives ahead of the election, seen as a key test of how Khatami's reforms are faring, Montazeri has again become the focus of intense public interest.

His supporters have been increasing demands for an end to his decade-long house arrest, which would signal an acceptance of Khatami's efforts to increase tolerance for opposition views in Iran's political life.

A Tehran newspaper on Saturday published a daring front-page photo of Montazeri -- whose mention is in principle forbidden in the press -- along with an article questioning the justice of his ongoing house arrest.

But opponents remain angered by Montazeri's call, just after Khatami's 1997 election, for the presidency to be given expanded political powers at the expense of the regime's conservatives.

Those remarks sparked demonstrations nationwide and since then the regime has arrested several prominent clerics, teachers and businessmen in Montazeri's birthplace of Najafabad, where he is an especially popular figure.

Mehdi Hashemi, the brother of his son-in-law, was executed in 1987 on charges of plotting against the regime.

Montazeri's links to President Khatami make him a particularly contentious figure ahead of the elections, in which pro-Khatami reformers are hoping to end the conservative domination of parliament.

The legislature has at times shown fierce opposition to Khatami's social and political reforms, and a victory by reformists would signal strong public support for his moves to liberalise Iranian society.

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