Thursday, June 09, 2005

Iran News - Rafsanjani, Servant of the People

Iran News - Rafsanjani, master of reinvention in Iran: " Rafsanjani, master of reinvention in Iran

Wednesday, June 08, 2005 - ©2005 IranMania.com
LONDON, June 8 (IranMania) - A devoted pillar of a hardline regime, or a pragmatic deal-maker ready to save Iran from extremism and steer it out of international isolation? A lofty cleric, or a man in touch with the people?

According to AFP, these may be seen as contradictory traits in Iranian politics, but leading presidential election contender Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is managing to come across as a man who is all of the above.

In campaigning to take back the Islamic republic's number-two job, which he held from 1989 to 1997, the 70-year-old ayatollah has proved himself a master of reinvention, rising above Iran's bitter left-right divide and espousing both Islamic revolutionary values and their overhaul.

So far, the strategy appears to be paying off: a string of informal opinion polls carried by the Iranian press all put Rafsanjani at the front of the pack of eight contenders.

The wily politician is seen as one of the few figures strong enough to tackle the rise of the right-wing, push through economic liberalisation and ease relations with the outside world -- even though his detractors accuse him of corruption and of killing dissidents.

He has also been a central pillar of the Islamic regime throughout its 26-year history -- serving two terms as president before moving on to head the Expediency Council, Iran's top political arbitration body.

Widely seen as Iran's de facto number-two behind supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent years he nevertheless managed to duck and dive through the damaging tensions between reformists and hardliners.

Analysts say that is a major draw for voters of all stripes, tired of the paralysis of the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

The son of a pistachio farmer, Rafsanjani went on to become an early follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a leading figure in the 1979 revolution. He studied theology in the Shiite clerical nerve centre of Qom at the age of 14, participated in the anti-monarchy movement during the 1960s and was frequently arrested by the shah's secret police.

His revolutionary credentials -- which include a bullet wound to the stomach -- have therefore provided him with more room for rhetorical manoeuvre, and unlike other candidates he is at ease tackling sensitive issues head on.

In his campaign, he has called on the regime to radically rethink its relationship with a burgeoning youth population, whose support he desperately needs to win.

"The situation is changing rapidly. To respond to the legitimate demands of this new generation, new solutions are necessary," he said.

In an attack on hardline dogma, he even said that "nobody should think that we can act by employing the same literature, the same policies or the same attitudes that we had at the beginning of the revolution."

Although Rafsanjani asserted that "the objectives of the revolution are rooted in our culture and beliefs", he added that Iran needed "new conditions at home" and "a new form of interaction with the world".

In effect, Rafsanjani has seized the vacant political centre ground. He is offering something for everyone -- committed supporters of the regime and those who want its reform -- and with political clout to boot.

He has also driven the debate on the issue of relations with the United States, still something of a taboo, but in a way that still asserts Iran's desire to be a regional superpower -- and be a strong negotiator amid tensions over the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.

This is something he feels permitted to do, given his background and past dealings with Washington to exchange arms for US hostages in Lebanon -- the so-called "Irangate" scandal.

In his campaign, the charismatic cleric has stated his desire to "solve" a quarter of a century of estrangement from Washington -- even though he once described US President George W. Bush as a "bird-brained dinosaur" and can still rally the hardcore.

On the home front, he may have been hostile to the rapid pace of social reform that Khatami had been pushing for, but he has also promoted the role of women. His daughter, Faizeh Hashemi, is a prominent champion of women's rights.

But all is not rosy in Rafsanjani's past.

His presidency was marked by a string of grisly murders and assassinations of dissidents and regime opponents at home and abroad. On the economic front, he did preside over a post-war boom, but also damaging inflation and mounting foreign debt.

Rafsanjani also remains dogged by gossip over his alleged wealth. He is rumoured to control assets ranging from hotels to automobile factories, grocery stores to pistachio plantations. He has recently been forced to deny being rich.

But these do not appear to be chipping away at his lead in the race.

Ask many Iranians why they want to vote for Rafsanjani, and the most common response is "We need a strong leader"."