The one-man Rafsanjani show

Posted in Iran | 31-May-05 | Author: Sami Moubayed| Source: Asia Times

Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
DAMASCUS - "As you consider it desirable that all people in the country from different interests have the opportunity to take part (in the upcoming presidential elections), the competence of Mr [Mostafa] Moin and Mr [Mohsen] Mehralizadeh is recognized."

With these written words, Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, leader of the all-powerful Guardians Council (GC) in Iran, addressed Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday, pledging to permit two disqualified candidates for the June 17 elections to run for presidential office. The Grand Ayatollah explained that monopolizing the elections would fuel anti-regime movements, shed doubt on the regime's credibility, and create mass boycotts on election day.

Hours after the disqualifications were announced, hundreds of students held a demonstration at Tehran University, denouncing the GC's measures and demanding that the reformist Moin be permitted to run for office. Jean Asselborn, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, addressed the matter: "The EU ministers regret that the GC has again decided to approve only those candidates who represent a relatively narrow range of political opinion. It makes the expression of a truly democratic choice by the Iranian people difficult."

Moin and Mehralizadeh had been the prime reformers in the presidential race, and because of their views, which call for liberalizing Iranian politics, they were disqualified by the GC. Janati and Khamenei permitted Moin and Mehralizadeh to run for office amid growing discontent within Iran at the GC's decision to disqualify 1,035 candidates for presidential office, permitting only six hardliners to compete; all of whom are considered puppets of the GC.

Observers of Iranian affairs have praised Khamenei's decision and the GC's U-turn. On the surface, it may seem democratic, but Khamenei has done it with one purpose: to impede the rise of ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani to power.

Although the two men have been friends since the Iranian revolution of 1979, they have quarreled on political matters ever since. More recently, Rafsanjani is believed to be seeking a deal with the Americans that would end Iran's nuclear program; something Khamenei curtly refuses.

Khamenei watched the campaigning with interest, fearing that of the six men permitted to run for office, only Rafsanjani had a power base in Iran. With relatively weak candidates around him, he would surely win the elections, portraying himself as a political giant. If challenged by someone like Moin, however, Khamenei believed Rafsanjani's chances of victory would be seriously questioned. So now eight people will run for president, making victory for Rafsanjani a little bit more difficult, though he is still very much a favorite.

This will not lead to a showdown between Khamenei and Rafsanjani (both former presidents of Iran) since both men are keen on showing the world that the Islamic republic is unified and "democratic". Yet the next month will be filled with behind-the-doors meetings and political deals between Khamenei and basically everybody else, to try to convince the masses to vote for someone other than Rafsanjani.

His candidate is most probably Moin - which places Moin in a tight spot. Initially, he had been highly critical of Khamenei's veto power over all political affairs in Iran, and the fact that the ayatollah would use his influence to overrun any decision reached by the political establishments or the GC. Now, he is the man to benefit most from Khamenei's veto since it got him back into the presidential race.

Khamenei as well will have a difficult time portraying himself as a reform-friendly cleric since his reputation since 1979 had been built as a conservative. He has to convince the Iranians that he wants a reformer like Moin in power because he is a reformer at heart, and not because he wants to keep Rafsanjani away from the job.

As the Grand Ayatollah who should be godfather to all, Khamenei cannot personalize his political stances in public. Whichever candidate is elected, however, both Moin and Khamenei would have their credibility seriously challenged from day one. If Moin is elected, he would discover that he cannot work with or be submissive to someone like Khamenei. And, in turn, Khamenei would discover that cooperating with a reformer like Moin would be unbearable, just as it had been under outgoing President Mohammad Khatami. A gridlock would then emerge and reforms would be stalled by political bickering, as the case under Khatami.

On the other hand, if Rafsanjani is elected, he will work to curb the influence of the GC, overshadowing it with his own personal clout, but try to cooperate more positively with Khamenei since ultimately he is no Moin or Khatami and is closer to the conservatives in power than he is to the reformers. By doing so, he would be able to push through with his minimal reforms. Minimal yet attainable reforms by Rafsanjani would be better for the Iranian public than loud and daring reforms (which will not get implemented) by Moin. Either way, the success of the new president will depend on how much he is willing to cooperate with Khamenei, since he is the No 1 man in Iran. More than anybody else, Hashemi Rafsanjani knows that.

The men who would be president
Mohammad Baqir Qalibaf, 43, is the youngest of the candidates. Born in September 1962, he was only 17 when the Islamic revolution broke out in 1979. A former general, he became commander of the Nasr Forces at the age of 22 in 1984, during the Iran-Iraq War. Qalibaf headed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the 1990s, becoming chief of police in June 2000. Among his memorable achievements is the purging of the police force from all political elements, particularly those opposed to the Iranian revolution. This was done to ensure that if rioting ever erupted, as was the case during the Shah's era in 1979, and the army sided with the demonstrators, then a loyal police force would be there to maintain order.

His reputation as a hardliner was cemented in July 1999 when, along with 24 IRGC members, he told Khatami that unless the government intervened to suppress student demonstrations in Tehran, he would take matters into his own hands and crush the demonstrators. Pragmatic, ruthless and conservative, his candidature was warmly received by the GC, yet he is greatly unpopular in Iran, generally believed to be a young dictator if he came to office. On May 9, he compared himself to Shah Reza Pehlavi, who is remembered for his authoritarianism in Iran, saying: "This country needs a Reza Khan. And I am the Reza Khan."

Ali Larijani, born in 1958, is another hardliner, and a candidate of the Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolutionary Forces. He had been director of Iranian Radio and Television in 1994-2004. Loathed as much as Qalibaf, he succeeded Khatami at the Islamic Culture and Guidance Ministry in 1992. During the first Rafsanjani era, Khatami had been "impeached" from his position at the ministry because he had too liberally relaxed the influx of foreign films and music into Iran. To prove his merit, Larijani did the exact opposite and was backed by his brother Sadegh Larijani, who is an influential member of the 12-man GC. Larijani speaks the language of Middle East regimes, is used to barking state rhetoric, and is no friend to reformers like Khatami.

He is close, however, to Grand Ayatollah Khamenei and serves as his representative at the National Security Council. Larijani is well aware that the US is serious in its threats to Iran, but does he not seem to mind that and has made no effort or public statement on appeasing or even courting the Americans. In fact, he has been very articulate against "making any concessions on nuclear technology", claiming this would be "tantamount to the biggest treason". He has even been critical of the European Union's role in getting Iran out of America's hair by giving concessions, claiming that if Iran gave up its weapon's program, it would be like exchanging a pearl for a bonbon. The victory of someone like Larijani would be greatly unwelcome not only within Iran, but also within the international community. His victory might be a perfect opportunity, and excuse, for the neo-conservatives in Washington to pursue their agenda in Iran, which had always been prevented, or delayed, by the diplomacy and maneuvering of someone like Khatami.

Mohammad Ahmad Nejad is more popular than both Larijani and Qalibaf, considered by many Iranians to be humble and warm. Also a conservative hardliner, however, he has been mayor of Tehran since April 2003. After 1979, he joined the Office for Strengthening Unity and was governor of Ardabil province during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980-88. He also served as a member of the central committee of the Society of the Devotees of the Islamic Revolution. He is not as powerful as Larijani and Qalibaf, but can be a serious challenge to both men because since 2003 he has gathered a lot of followers in Tehran.

Mohsen Rezai was born in 1954 in Masjid Sulayman and headed the IRGC in 1981-87 during the harshest years of the Iran-Iraq War. A military hardliner, he is now secretary of the Expediency Council and is trying hard to shake off his military background and promote himself as a democrat. His election campaigner described him as an Iranian Charles de Gaulle. He once said: "My political ideas are rooted in my deep belief in democracy. I left the military when I decided to take part in political activities." Iranians are not too fond of military regimes, especially the youth, who are hungry for open-minded, civil and young leaders to lead them. Rezai is neither open-minded, nor civil, nor young. He has been very critical of Khatami's diplomatic maneuvers toward the US and warned against American aggressiveness after September 11. He thinks the Khatami regime gave too many concessions to both the Americans and the Europeans, claiming that if he came to power, "submissive diplomacy" would come to an end. A confrontationist like Larijani, his election would be unwelcome in Washington, Europe and among the Iranians living both at home and in the diaspora.

Mehdi Karoubi is the finest among the conservatives, and, like Rezai, is a member of the Expediency Council and a close adviser to Khamenei. Born in 1939, he is a hardliner turned mild reformer who criticizes the GC yet supports Khamenei. In recent days he has stood up for the rejected candidates, saying that the GC was unjust in turning down their applications. A polished and refined politician, considered to be a true Iranian nationalist, he was Speaker of parliament in 1990-92 and in 2000-04. He headed the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyrs' Foundation and is founder and current secretary general of the Militant Clerics Association, a pro-reform movement of which Khatami is a member. On relations with America, he advocates the most pragmatic approach and has said: "With regard to America, I must say that the American statesmen should stop their current ways of intimidation and approaches vis-a-vis Iran. If this happens, then I will not oppose relations with America." His candidacy will split the reformers in half, with some voting for him and others voting for Moin or Mehralizadeh - which in effect will serve the interests of nobody but Rafsanjani.

Mostafa Moin is the man making headlines today as the reformer who, if elected, would continue the promising yet undelivered reforms of Khatami. Born in Najaf Abad in 1951, Moin studied medicine at Shiraz University and after 1979 became president of the university (1981-82). He has been on the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council since 1983 and was a member of parliament in 1982-84, 1988-89 and 1997-2001. Moin served as minister of culture and higher education under both presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, resigning twice - in 1999 at the suppression of student demonstrators (in which his rivals in today's elections played a crucial role), and in 2003, when the GC refused to permit his ministry to pursue more "scientific productivity". On Iranian-American affairs, he is a moderate who recently said that he wanted "dialogue with the world", pointing out that "America is a part of that community". He added, "We can have interactions with America as equals, without imposed preconditions." He nevertheless has demanded an apology from America for the "moral, spiritual and material damage they have inflicted on us".

Mohsen Mehralizadeh is the other reformer recently accepted into the presidential race. He was born in 1956. Campaigning as a candidate for the country's youth, he has set up an interactive website for his campaign and is promoting himself as an ally of Khatami. He is, however, a serious contender to no one. In 1979-81 he was regional commander of the IRGC and in 1985-90 worked at the Ministry of Heavy Industries before becoming managing director of the Kish Island Development Organization. He then served on the Atomic Energy Organization and as governor of Kharasan province in 1997-2001. Since 2001 he has been adviser to Khatami on sports affairs.

Hashemi Rafsanjani was born in 1934 and was a long-time ally and friend of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic revolution. He studied Islam in Qom, befriended Khomeini and was persecuted for his theocratic views during the Shah's secular regime in the 1960s. He became Speaker in 1980-89, during the heyday of Khomeini's rule, and briefly served as interior minister. In 1988-89 he was acting commander-in-chief of the Iranian army and played a crucial role in getting Khomeini to accept a ceasefire with Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Between 1989-97 he was Khomeini's successor and in 2000 was elected into parliament. Until today, Rafsanjani was the first president in Iranian history to leave office willingly. The first president Abulhassan Banisadr (1980-81) was impeached because of a war with the clerics. Mohammad Ali Rajai, the second, was assassinated in 1981, and Khamenei was "promoted" to become Supreme Leader. During his term as president, Rafsanjani tried to open channels with the US by selecting the American oil company Conoco to develop an Iranian oilfield, yet his request was turned down by US president Bill Clinton.

Rafsanjani normalized relations with Great Britain, and on May 19 said he wanted to repair relations with the US. He is viewed with mixed signals in the West because he supports the Arab-Israeli peace initiative of Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (made in Beirut in 2002) but also supports suicide bombings against Israel inside the Palestinian territories. His youngest son, to the great displeasure of the West, is named Yasser, after the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He is a principal patron of the Lebanese Hezbollah.

In 1992 he handpicked the young Hasan Nasrullah to become secretary general of Hezbollah after the assassination of then-leader Abbas al-Musawi, although other members were more senior and experienced that Nasrullah. Rafsanjani's relationship with the Lebanese party will surely cause him problems in the international community, especially with the US, because United Nations Resolution 1559 asks Hezbollah to disarm, something which Rafsanjani refuses to allow to happen.

He is a declared supporter of foreign investment and women's rights, he is a balanced politician to both the reformers and conservatives; too liberal to be considered a conservative, and too conservative to be considered a liberal. He has been accused by enemies of profiteering at the state's expense, but in effect, his wealth came from a construction career of the 1960s, during the Shah's boom years. These accusations were also made because his son Muhsen Hashemi currently is a contractor and head of Tehran Metro, but they are now generally believed to be false, although they made headlines during the Khatami presidency.

Rafsanjani is popular among all segments of Iranian society because of his age, experience and shrewdness, having served in top political positions since 1979. As Iran's regional and international standing is being damaged by its animosity with the US, Iranians are searching for a familiar face, a hero, to lead them. And among the eight candidates, these traits can only be found in Rafsanjani.

Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.