By John Irish
VERSAILLES, France (Reuters) - Exiled former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr accused Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday of using this week's presidential election to weaken the office and cement his own power.
Bani-Sadr, a sworn opponent of Tehran's clerical rulers ever since being driven from office and fleeing in 1981, told Reuters in an interview that the six remaining candidates in Friday's poll were separated by only shades of difference on policy.
"Any one of these men picked by Khamenei will execute his orders," the 80-year-old said in an interview in his house near Paris, where he has been exiled since 1981.
"The Republic is erasing itself in the face of the Leader."
Most key Iranian policies that concern the world, such as an uranium enrichment program that has prompted international economic sanctions, and Iran's support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with rebels, are decided by Khamenei.
Although the Iranian president generally runs domestic affairs, especially the economy of the oil producer, and is Iran's highest-ranking public face, outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been increasingly at loggerheads with Khamenei in his second term, and begun to seem like a marginal figure.
Bani-Sadr said all his potential successors had shown in pre-election debates that they were out of touch with the economic difficulties of ordinary Iranians.
"The presidency is finished. Even under (ex-president) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Republic resisted. He had a say, but that's over. They dare not say that we have reached an impasse," said Bani-Sadr, a veteran of the protest movement of the 1970s that overthrew Iran's shah.
He said the main significance of the election would be in signaling to the United States which direction Iran wished to pursue in the long-running and so far fruitless negotiations with major powers on its nuclear program. Western powers fear Iran may be trying to develop the capacity to build atomic weapons, but Iran says the program is entirely peaceful.
Khamenei has not publicly endorsed any candidate, and insists he has only one vote.
Bani-Sadr said the Iranian people were fully aware that the election meant very little, but that Western sanctions and the veiled threat of war to prevent it acquiring nuclear weapons had helped to strengthen Khamenei's hand.
"His strategy is to see how much fear can paralyze the people," Bani-Sadr said. "These elections are telling them that there is the choice of the ballot box or hell," he said, pointing to the conflicts in Afghanistan to the east, Iraq to the west, and in Syria.
Bani-Sadr accompanied revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini home from exile in 1979 and was elected president in 1980, only to be impeached by parliament the following year.
Ever since Khomeini, he said there had been a drive to create a "Shi'ite belt" taking in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to span a large part of the Muslim world.
"That way, it (Iran) ... can play a role as a guide to the Muslim world," Bani-Sadr said.
That policy had already cost Iran dear during its eight-year war with Iraq's Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, and subsequently in its support for the Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, and for Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ism.
"A good portion of the regime's weakness is down to these crises, and (the desire) to have that belt at all costs," he said. "Khamenei wants to help Assad at all costs."
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)