Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Iran Presidential Campaign 2005: Rafsanjani considers running for president to thwart hardliners

Iran Presidential Campaign 2005: FT.com / World / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani considers running for president to thwart hardliners: "FT.com / World / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani considers running for president to thwart hardliners
FT.com / World / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani considers running for president to thwart hardliners: "Rafsanjani considers running for president to thwart hardliners
By Gareth Smyth
Published: December 16 2004 02:00 | Last updated: December 16 2004 02:00

A datein May or June has yet to be set for Iran's presidential election, as the interior ministry has failed to agree on a suitable Friday with the GuardianCouncil, the Islamic watchdog that supervises political affairs.


But this is just one of many uncertainties clouding an election that may be the most unpredictable in the Islamic Republic's 25-year history.

"We've never had less of an idea of who will win," says Mostafa Tajzadeh, a leading official in Jebhey-e Mosharekat, the reformist party. "We don't know who will stand, it is hard to predict turnout and there are serious differences in the conservative camp."

The election will be closely watched in Europe and the US. Iran is opening a dialogue with the European Union on its controversial nuclear programme, and the election comes at a crucial time. The reformists led by Mohammad Khatami, president since 1997, have suffered numerous setbacks over the past two years, and conservatives have retaken parliament and are baying for a return to confrontation.

"In Iran the government affects all spheres of life; it's not 10-15 per cent as in western countries," says Mr Tajzadeh. The president is responsible for appointing the government but he is subject to checks from the Guardian Council and from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader.

The Guardian Council blocked many reforms wanted by Mr Khatami, who is constitutionally barred from a third term and has no obvious successor to take up the reformist torch.

Officials within Mosharekat and Sazeman-e Mojahedin, an allied reformist party, are trying to persuade Mostafa Moein, a former minister of higher education, to stand - even though many expect the Guardian Council to exclude him, just as it barred more than 2,000 reformists from February's parliamentary election, claiming they did not truly support Iran's Islamic system.

"If Mr Moein agrees to stand, we should build a campaign as soon as possible that would make it hard for the council to reject him," says Mr Tajzadeh. "The council will not ignore public opinion. And if it did, and the election were not free, we would expose this."

But with Iranian public opinion largely alienated from politics after years of conflict between reformists and conservatives, influential figures are looking for technocratic solutions that would expand business and trade.

"Many heavyweights welcomed the conservatives' victory in February after their promises to concentrate on the economy, but they were then appalled by the new deputies' anti-business rhetoric," says a management consultant.

Concern with the possibility of a rightwing president allied to a rightwing parliament is prompting the 70-year-old Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to consider running again for the office, which he held between 1989 and 1997.

"The recent ruling from the Expediency Council [which Mr Rafsanjani chairs] in favour of privatisation was a clear sign to the parliament," says the consultant. "Rafsanjani is business-minded."

Business interests also welcomed the agreement reached in November with Britain, France and Germany on a temporary suspension of Iran's uranium enrichment programme. Negotiators close to Mr Rafsanjani, in-cluding Hassan Rowhani, played a central role.

An official close to the former president says he is weighing up the situation. "He feels a hard-line faction is gaining too much power," he says. "He's worried about the socialism in their economics and their desire for confrontation internationally. They could do just as much damage to Iran as our enemies."

Rightwingers have not disguised their bitter dislike of Mr Rafsanjani, whom they accuse of opportunism. At least one prominent deputy, Ahmad Tavakoli, insists he will stand against him.

There are also strong rumours that rightwingers will blacken Mr Rafsanjani's name - attacking his family's extensive business dealings, his liberalism on social issues, or his alleged 1980s role in secret deals to take arms from the US in return for help in releasing hostages in Lebanon.

The Iranian media have reported that Mr Rafsanjani's fears of "character assassination" are delaying his decision to stand.""