Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Suspense, intrigue as Iran's Rafsanjani mulls presidential comeback

News: "Suspense, intrigue as Iran's Rafsanjani mulls presidential comeback
12-07-2004, 12h37

Behrouz Mehri - (AFP/File)
TEHRAN (AFP) - Iran's reformists look to be out of the running for next year's presidential election, but an element of suspense and political intrigue is still there thanks to the possibility of a comeback by former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Seen as a pragmatic conservative, the charismatic top cleric has managed to inject some excitement into a race that would otherwise be written off as a shoo-in for hardliners in the process of tightening their grip on power.

Rafsanjani has yet to formally declare his candidacy in the polls -- expected to be held in May 2005 -- but he has been firing off clear signals that he wants his old job as regime number-two back.

"I would rather someone else enter the presidential race, but if society as well as prominent pundits conclude that I can fulfill this task better, I will announce my readiness," Rafsanjani said in September in what has been taken as a clear declaration of intent.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is now seen as a lame-duck leader -- his reformist allies having been weeded out by more powerful hardliners and his own powers increasingly limited.

Khatami is nearing the end of his second consecutive and therefore final term. The Iranian constitution only bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive four-year terms, meaning that Rafsanjani -- president for two terms from 1989-97 -- can in theory stand again.

The reformist camp's hoped-for candidate, former prime minister Mir Hossein Moussavi, has shunned calls to stand.

Another possible reformist candidate who has yet to declare, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karoubi, may also have a hard time convincing disappointed Khatami supporters that he can wield more clout.

This, analysts say, has created an ironic situation where Rafsanjani could become the focus of reformist efforts to stem a total hardline takeover, while at the same time holding the support of centrists and traditional conservatives.

A little over four years ago, the reformists -- then on an upward swing and oozing confidence -- launched their own bitter campaign against Rafsanjani that pushed him towards the conservative camp.

But Rafsanjani, 70, is seen as representing a power centre apart from the reformers and their hardline opponents. Recent informal opinion polls have shown him to be a leading contender should he chose to stand.

He is conservative yet progressive on some issues -- hostile to the rapid pace of social reform that Khatami had been pushing for, but a leading force behind economic liberalisation.

At the same time he can still assert his revolutionary credentials and rally the faithful with colourful tirades against arch-enemy the United States. Describing US President George W. Bush as a "bird-brained dinosaur" was particularly memorable.

But even his firebrand statements bely a record as a politician who has favoured rapprochement with the West on Iran's own terms. Such an image has seen him emerge as a favorite among many reformists and conservatives alike.

Presidential candidates are subject to appoval by the Guardians Council, an unelected body controlled by hardliners that vets all legislation and those seeking to be parliament deputies and president.

It was the council which blacklisted nearly all of the reformist's candidates ahead of the February parliamentary elections, leaving a coalition of conservatives and hardliners cruising to an easy win.

It is seen as impossible for the body to reject Rafsanjani -- given his heavyweight credentials and position as head of the Expediency Council, Iran's top political arbitration body -- although other tactics aimed at nudging him out cannot be ruled out.

Rafsanjani is the subject of plenty of gossip over his alleged wealth. He is rumoured to control assets ranging from hotels to automobile factories, grocery stores to pistachio plantations.

He recently denied this, but observers say this image could work for and against him -- being a successful businessman is a vote winner among voters eager to see a president with a bread-and-butter focus, but it could also draw a smear campaign centered on corruption allegations.

The suspense over Rafsanjani's intentions is likely to be maintained up until the very last minute, political analysts say, given that he may not wish to plunge himself into a lengthy campaign prematurely.

And much depends on who else is standing: someone of Rafsanjani's stature will certainly not wish to risk a defeat at the polls, and even if he chooses not to stand he will still be safe in the Expediency Council.

Possible contenders include the former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and already widely seen by the local press as the regime's choice.

Another possible regime choice is the former longtime boss of Iran's state broadcast media, Ali Larijani, who now represents Khamenei on Iran's top security body."

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