Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is floating a proposal to radically alter the country’s constitution and abolish the presidency, a position currently held by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (AP)

A proposal by Iran’s supreme leader to radically alter the country’s constitution and abolish the presidency is drawing praise from his supporters but criticism from influential politicians.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was appointed supreme leader for life in 1989 by Shiite Muslim clerics, said in a speech last week that, if deemed appropriate, Iran could do without a president. The post is currently held by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose 2009 reelection was disputed by opponents and led to months of street protests.

Former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said publicly Tuesday that the proposal strongly undermines the ideal of an Islamic republic, in which the people elect their leaders.

Ahmadinejad, for his part, said in a speech Tuesday in the eastern city of Birjand, “We will not respond but know that the nation is awake.” He was vague on whether he was specifically addressing the proposal to eliminate his position.

Ahmadinejad stressed that no one should have problems with “the people” and said that “if the time comes that anyone wants to block them from progressing, they will remove him in two seconds,” the Fararu Web site wrote.

Under the proposal, Iran would be ruled by Khamenei working in tandem with parliament, which would continue to be directly elected and would appoint one of its members to serve as prime minister.

Such a change could happen in the “near or distant future,” Khamenei said. The last time Iran’s constitution was altered was in 1989 after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic and its first supreme leader. The position of prime minister was abolished at that time.

If implemented, the change would widen Khamenei’s powers. Supporters said it would allow him manage the nation without the current debilitating political squabbles and that nothing would really change, since voters would still elect the parliament.

“Our [supreme] leadership is the only unchangeable part of our system,” Mohammad Dehgan, an influential lawmaker, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency on Monday. “Our presidential system in its current form is not effective,” he added, citing the political infighting.

While the supreme leader in theory has the final say over all state and religious matters in Iran, in practice he has ruled by consensus. However, he increasingly has stepped into political feuds recently and no longer actively supports Ahmadinejad.

The two men had a public falling out in April, when Ahmadinejad forced then-Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi to resign. That prompted Khamenei to reinstate Moslehi — a Shiite cleric and Khamenei protege — and effectively ended the supreme leader’s support for Ahmadinejad.

Under Iran’s system, the supreme leader is more powerful than the president and appoints the commanders of the armed forces, the chief judge and prosecutor and a number of other key officials. He is elected — and can be removed — by the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member council of Islamic scholars. The supreme leader also has the power to dismiss the president if the holder of that office is impeached by parliament or convicted by the supreme court of violating constitutional duties.

But any effort to remove Ahmadinejad would be politically costly, analysts said. Instead, supporters of Khamenei, 72, are trying to hamstring Ahmadinejad until his term ends in 2013. Among other things, they are reluctant to allow the president to speak live on state television.

The strongest criticism of Khamenei’s proposal came from Rafsanjani, 77, a cleric who served as president from 1989 to 1997 and was long considered the No. 2 figure in Iran’s political system. In an interview published Tuesday in the Shargh newspaper, which is critical of the government, he warned that the plan would limit “people’s influence.” He said he was sure that this was “not what the leader intends.”

Rafsanjani, who was purged after he supported political reformists following the 2009 election protests, rarely speaks out directly against the supreme leader.

“I do not admire the bad management of the country,” he told young journalists in the Shargh interview.