Thursday, December 16, 2004

International News Article | Analysis: Rafsanjani Plots Iran Comeback

International News Article | Reuters.com: "

By Paul Hughes
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Fears that Islamic hard-liners could exacerbate Iran's nuclear standoff with the West, scare foreign investors and worsen social tensions may pave the way for a comeback by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Humiliated by reformists in parliamentary polls in 2000 when he failed to gain a seat, the mid-ranking cleric has set his sights on presidential elections in mid-2005.

But Rafsanjani, 70, who has yet to declare he will run, must overcome stern opposition from reformists and hard-liners alike, as well as deep public skepticism if he is to return to the job he held from 1989 to 1997.

"The worse things go internationally and domestically for Iran over the next few months, the more that plays into Rafsanjani's hands,"said a senior political analyst in Tehran.

"What he and his backers are saying is that he is the man for a crisis," said the analyst, who declined to be named.

Conservatives are poised to take back the presidency in elections set for May or June as President Mohammad Khatami's eight-year reform experiment peters out amid public disillusionment with his failure to deliver promised improvements in political, economic and social freedoms.

But increasingly vociferous and confident hard-liners, who reversed the reformist majority in parliament in February polls, may be giving Iran's clerical establishment cause for concern.

RADICAL PARLIAMENT

Driven by strong Islamic beliefs, anti-Western sentiment and emphasis on social justice, the new deputies have questioned major foreign investment projects, backed clampdowns on social freedoms and criticized officials for negotiating with the European Union over Iran's atomic program.

"The question facing the Iranian regime is whether the interest of the state lies in having a radical president who would fall in line with radical forces in the parliament," Amir Ali Nourbakhsh, a director at business consultants Atieh Bahar Consulting, wrote in a recent opinion piece.

The alternative, he says, may be "a more pragmatic president who could continue the current detente with the international community, that even the conservative leaders of the Islamic Republic finds necessary for the preservation of the regime."

As head of a top policy body known as the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani recently outmaneuvered parliamentarians' efforts to stifle economic reform by pushing through a constitutional amendment opening up vast sectors of the state-dominated economy to privatization.
Unlike hard-liners, Rafsanjani is also seen as a pragmatist on social issues who, when president, started the process toward more relaxed dress codes for women and increased cultural activities which later flourished under Khatami.

Supporters say the man who brokered U.S. arms shipments to Iran in the 1980s has the experience and guile to handle the international pressures facing Tehran.

But Rafsanjani would have to win over a public deeply mistrustful of the former president, who, despite his denials, is perceived as having used political influence to amass a business fortune for himself and relatives.

NUCLEAR ISSUE KEY

Just by announcing his candidacy "the problems surrounding Iran's nuclear case and the foreign threats it faces, especially from America, will be lessened," said Mohammad Reza Turani, an official at the Experts Assembly, a top decision-making body.

For the senior political analyst, "the key to Rafsanjani's campaign is the nuclear case. If the nuclear issue is going badly, and pressure from the West is high, that favors him."

The nuclear timetable appears to be in Rafsanjani's favor.

Tensions which have lulled while Iran discusses a long-term nuclear solution with the EU are pre-programmed to flare up again in about three months, with Iran warning it will resume sensitive atomic work like uranium enrichment soon after.

"Given the radical political slant of parliament and the Islamic state's genetic inclination toward 'good cop, bad cop' policies, the likelihood that Iran's next president would be a moderate is not all that minute," says Nourbakhsh.

Backers say more than 20 small political parties have endorsed Rafsanjani's candidacy. But opposition toward a man who arouses divided feelings in Iran is also strong.

Deputies this month reluctantly dropped a proposed bill that would have made the maximum age for presidential candidates 70, a move clearly aimed at Rafsanjani who turns 71 next year.

Several more hardline conservatives are ready to challenge Rafsanjani, including Ali Akbar Valayati and Ali Larijani, both top advisers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Reformists, though struggling to find a candidate of their own, are reluctant to back a man they see as partly responsible for Khatami's failure to push through reforms."