Iran's presidential dark horse

Posted in Iran | 04-Jan-05 | Author: Safa Haeri| Source: Asia Times

A view of parliament in Iran.
PARIS - With the next Iranian presidential elections fixed for June 17, and the world watching with growing interest, the election campaign kicked off on November 17 last year when several conservative potential candidates presented a summary of their programs to a selected number of journalists - but not including the official news agency IRNA.

Of the five candidates presented officially, three are former high-ranking officers of the mullahs' Praetorian Guards - Mohsen Rezai, the former commander-in-chief of the Army of the Guards of the Islamic Revolution, or the Revolutionary Guards, who is the secretary of the Expediency Council; Ali Larijani, former head of the conservative-controlled Voice and Visage (Radio and Television), now the supreme leader's personal representative at the Supreme Council on National Security; and Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad, the mayor of Tehran, who did not attend the meeting.

The two other contenders are Dr Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign affairs minister, and Ahmad Tavakkoli, a former labor minister who is a member of the present conservative-controlled majlis (parliament).

Introducing the candidates, the coordinator of the Islamic Revolution Forces, known as the Osoulgerayan or the Fundamentalists, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, a former Speaker who was badly defeated by Mohammad Khatami in the May 1997 presidential elections, said that in the view of the Fundamentalists, the popularity of a candidate is more important than his competency. "Whoever is adhering to Islam, Revolution, Emam [grand ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] and the leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] can be considered as a member of the Fundamentalists, who consider a good but popular candidate as better than the best but unpopular."

According to many political observers, the man who is most opposed to Hashemi Rafsanjani's candidacy is one of his former longtime friends and comrades in arms, but now his most implacable and powerful enemy, Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic.

The two men have in fact a bitter memory of each another when, after the death of Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic Revolution and the founding father of the Islamic Republic, in August 1989, Khamenei, then a diminutive and powerless president, was picked by the Assembly of Experts as the leader of the regime and Rafsanjani, the powerful Speaker and the regime's virtual No 2 after the grand ayatollah, became president.

The reason the experts, maneuvered behind doors by Rafsanjani, chose Khamenei as leader was his low profile, his detachment from power games and his background as an intellectual preferring poetry to politics.

However, it took only a few months for the new couple to run into deep trouble, as on the one hand Khamenei, who was also elevated overnight to the rank of ayatollah, would, under pressure from his entourage, try to assert and consolidate his role and position as the leader, while on the other hand the new president, also a junior cleric, would try to run the country independently, as he had done since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, with the blessing of Khomeini.

The result of this bitter fight was a total paralysis of the regime, as Khamenei, in order to show to both the Iranians and the international community that he was the boss - and not Rafsanjani - would systematically block all major initiatives taken by the president at the domestic and international levels, including a certain liberalization of the economy, by giving more incentive to the private sector, or timid efforts to improve relations with the United States.

To prevent Rafsanjani, who is in his 70s, from entering the latest presidential race, the majlis sought to pass a bill limiting the age of potential candidates to 60, but it then dropped the initiative as it was too obvious who the law was aimed at.

Although Nateq-Nouri announced that none of the candidates of the Fundamentalist faction would be allowed to invite Rafsanjani to take part in the race, thus touching on the election's most sensitive nerve, many political observers point out that the issue of his participation sharply divides the ruling conservatives, as well as the now almost defunct reformers.

"Few contenders, whether conservative or reformers, would dare to stand against a heavyweight such as Hashemi Rafsanjani," noted Amir Mohebbian, the editor and senior commentator of the Resalat newspaper, a pro-conservative daily close to the bazaar oligarchy.

In fact, while several groups from the hardliners, like the Fundamentalists, have openly sided against the former president, others, tagged as "moderates", "neo-conservatives" or "pragmatists", are insisting on his participation.

While some leading candidates, such as Velayati and Larijani, have hinted that they would be eclipsed if Rafsanjani decided to enter the election, others, including Rezai, have said they would fight to the end, regardless of whom they might face.

"It is quite possible that the more critical Iran's international situation grows in the coming months, the more moderate Iran's next president is likely to be ... for instance, despite extensive opposition to Rafsanjani's candidature, he might, in the final weeks before the election, be found the appropriate person for the job," commented Amir Nourbakhsh, a director of the firm Atieh Bahar Consulting of Tehran.

This is also the view of other analysts, who speculate that the maverick chairman of the Expediency Council, Rezai, considered as a "master manipulator", could well be behind the support Khamenei provided to the Iranian diplomats who in Vienna negotiated the resolution of the international nuclear watchdog allowing Iran to escape possible economic sanctions from the United Nations Security Council, as pressed and demanded by Washington, this in connection with Iran's nuclear program, which Washington believes is being used to develop nuclear weapons.

"Without the explicit backing of the leader and sincere understanding and goodwill from our European partners, namely Britain, France and Germany, we would hit the wall," a senior Iranian negotiator on Iran's nuclear-program issue told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity, adding that both Rafsanjani and Rohani, who is also the supervisor of the nuclear question, played a "major role" in persuading Khamenei to give his green light to the diplomats to negotiate the deal in terms of which Iran suspended its uranium-enrichment program.

"If Iran's next president is elected from among forces politically close to the mindset of those who negotiated the recent agreement on Iran's nuclear program, it would be possible to expect a moderate conservative administration that would gradually move towards detente with the West," Nourbakhsh pointed out, naming Rohani as one of the men who symbolizes with this faction.

So unpopular is Rafsanjani that in the 2000 legislative elections he did not get enough votes to enter the majlis as a candidate from Tehran.

However, like a cat that always lands on its feet, Rafsanjani has repositioned himself as a possible "savior" of both the Islamic Republic and the Iranian nation, and while rejected by some hardline factions, he is sought by tens of other political groups and formations, such as the Servants of Building Iran, the Moderation and Development Party, the Association of Islamic Revolution's Youth, the Islamic Labor Party, the Association of Iranian Experts, to name a few united under the generic coalition of "For a Brighter Tomorrow".

While there is a profusion of runners in the ruling conservative camp - to the point of becoming both a headache and a major problem for the conservatives - the so-called reformers, badly defeated in the last legislative race and rejected by the population, mostly the youngsters and the women who make up more than 70% of the population, are in desperate search for candidates.

After Mir Hoseyne Moussavi, Iran's wartime popular prime minister and the reformers' first hope as a candidate for the presidency, decided not to accept the offer, the movement turned to Mehdi Karroubi, the Speaker of the sixth majlis, and Mostafa Moin, the higher education minister, as second choices.

Some moderate reformists, aware of their past mistake of when in power taking a pleasure in arrogantly humiliating Rafsanjani, are now embracing the idea of throwing their support behind the former president in the futile hope that, due to his pragmatic attitude, he might, in the event he is elected, form a coalition cabinet that takes on board some heavyweight reformists.

However, the problem of Rafsanjani's possible candidacy has badly divided the conservatives. "The traditionalists' camp of the conservatives that constitutes their historic backbone would certainly go for Hashemi Rafsanjani, while others would decide for candidates preferred by the leader," predicted Ali Shakkouri Rad, a reformist lawmaker in the last majlis.

But as Moin has very little chance of drawing a substantial number of votes, even if he is ratified by the Council of Guardians, the leader-controlled body in charge of vetting all candidates, Karroubi seems the best choice for the reformists.

In this case, the likelihood is to see a fight between Rafsanjani and Karroubi, with both men having equal chances, unless a third cleric, namely Rohani, enters the arena. To some pundits, Rohani, who is 55, could be be a better and more popular president than Rafsanjani.

Unlike the former president, who trails a background of corruption, nepotism, opportunism and crackdown on dissidents, Rohani is known for his integrity, has a clean record, has served in high positions, although not as high-profile as those occupied by Rafsanjani, and last but not least, he has a sound religious and Western education, having a masters degree from Glasgow University.

"If the Iranian state were to seek to appoint its next president based on national interests, criteria to preserve the regime and the president's skill to reconcile political factions, it would certainly fail to do so, at least under the current circumstances. The reason is simple: Iran's national interests are contrary to incentives to preserve the regime of the Islamic Republic," pointed out Nourbakhsh, explaining that seen from experience, "it is almost impossible for the Iranian state today to find a presidential candidate who could produce a high turnout [source of domestic legitimacy], be able to gain the trust of the international community [external legitimacy] and capable of accommodating the interests of major political groups [national reconciliation]".

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.