By Parisa Hafezi
ANKARA (Reuters) - The head of Iran’s top clerical body has died after lying in a coma for months, leaving a gap in the only institution that has the authority to elect and dismiss the country's Supreme Leader.
The death of 83-year-old Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, reported by Iranian media, is unlikely to spark any direct policy change or jockeying for power, officials and analysts said.
But with the health of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also under scrutiny after he underwent prostate surgery last month, any changes in the body that will choose his successor are sensitive and closely watched.
Under Iran's constitution, in case of the death, resignation, or dismissal of the leader, the Assembly of Experts has to take steps "within the shortest possible time for the appointment of the new leader".
Created after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the assembly has never exercised its right to dismiss a leader, but it has turned into a potential arena for competition between rival factions in Iran's complex power structure.
Some analysts believe that securing a majority in the assembly when it is next elected in early 2016 would help reinforce the position of supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist who has steered Iran into delicate negotiations with the West over the country's disputed nuclear programme.
Iran is seeking the removal of international sanctions designed to curb the programme and prevent it from developing a nuclear bomb. It denies any such ambition, and says it needs atomic power to generate electricity
"If pragmatists and moderates can secure a majority in the upcoming parliamentary and the Assembly elections, surely they will have an upper hand in Iran's political arena," said political analyst Mansour Marvi. Parliamentary elections are also due in 2016.
In March, hardline cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati warned of "a plot to take over the Assembly of Experts", reflecting fears among the supreme leader's loyalists that they could lose their grip on power.
Such an outcome would upset the balance of forces that Khamenei has sought to cultivate in the past 25 years. Since taking over in 1989 from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, he has sought to ensure that no group, including among his own conservative allies, gains enough power to challenge his status.
Khamenei controls the judiciary, the security forces and the Guardian Council which vets laws and election candidates, as well as public broadcasters and foundations that own much of the economy.
Analysts said that following the death of Kani, prominent cleric Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi would continue as acting chairman of the Assembly of Experts, whose 86 clerics are elected by the people every eight years.
Along with the Assembly, Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards are also expected to play a major role in selecting the next Supreme Leader. The Guards, who answer directly to Khamenei, have become more assertive in politics in recent years.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)