Friday, March 25, 2005

FT.com / World / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani's possible return creates a buzz in Tehran

FT.com / World / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani's possible return creates a buzz in Tehran: "Rafsanjani's possible return creates a buzz in Tehran
By Gareth Smyth
Published: March 25 2005 16:37 | Last updated: March 25 2005 16:37

Akbar was intelligent, and naughty, always trying to be in charge although he wasn't the eldest,” says Taiyebeh Hashemi-Bahramani, 76, pulling her floral chador across her smile.

“He was always ambitious, but he was popular, and we were sad when he left.”

From childhood, Akbar Hashemi-Bahramani saw beyond the arid landscape of Bahraman village, in south-central Iran. He left in 1948, aged 14, to study in the holy city of Qom. Taiyabeh was not surprised when he emerged as a leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution, taking the nom de guerre, Rafsanjani, after the nearest city to Bahraman.

Taiyebeh still lives near the house where she, Akbar and seven other siblings grew up. “We've never talked about politics,” she says. “Yes, I've heard he may stand for president again, which I suppose is good if he can rule the country any better.”

Life and politics run to a different rhythm in Iran's vast hinterland than in Tehran, where the chattering classes are abuzz with the possible return of Mr Rafsanjani, now 70, as president.

But Mr Rafsanjani head of the powerful Expediency Council, president between 1989 and 1997 and at the heart of Iranian politics since the revolution is suddenly bashful, slow to declare.

His supporters say he prefers a younger candidate and will stand only reluctantly. Detractors say he is worried he will not win.

Neither is it clear whether the many mysteries surrounding Mr Rafsanjani help or hinder his prospects.

June's presidential election comes at a testing time. A hardline conservative majority in Iran's parliament is resisting economic liberalisation. Meanwhile, US pressure is growing against Tehran's nuclear programme and the regime's support for militant Palestinian groups.

The Rafsanjani camp says he is the only figure with the stature and skill to deal with such domestic and international crises. “He's concerned the hardliners could militarise the situation and destroy the country,” says one ally.

Much of the right-wing press, however, is itching to publish stories about Mr Rafsanjani's business dealings and the allegedly lax lifestyle of his children.

It is widely believed Mr Rafsanjani and his family have vast wealth. Some claim this came from property dealings in the 1970s, some from oil and arms deals after the revolution. As with so much about Mr Rafsanjani, the truth is elusive.

In Rafsanjan, people scoff at stories that he is a “pistachio millionaire”.

“There are 110 hectares of pistachios he has four of them,” says Abdul-Mahdi Ansari, the city's governor and a relative by marriage.

“When he went to Qom, we sent him money to live on,” remembers Taiyebeh, Mr Rafsanjani's sister. “They always say he has a palace here, surrounded by revolutionary guards. Well, take a look!”

Her house is a typically modest dwelling in a village that has had mains electricity only since the revolution.

Working to survive in a hostile environment has made the people patient. In Rafsanjan, as in much of rural Iran, the reformists' lofty agenda of social liberalism and constitutional change has had limited impact.

Most voters have a direct or indirect relationship to agriculture, and the farmers' main concern is access to water.

When Mr Rafsanjani was growing up, villages farmed cotton, barley and wheat. But rising water consumption led to the dominance of the pistachio, which needs less irrigation.

“In the past, we had qanats [ancient underground water tunnels], then we drilled wells, but were always having to go deeper,” says Mr Ansari.

The Rafsanjan Development Corporation now plans a $500m pipeline from the Karoun river 600km to the west, and talks are under way with Mitsubishi, a Saudi pipe-manufacturer and other foreign companies to offer services or form joint ventures.

“Finance is from the co-operative of pistachio producers, although the payment would be guaranteed by the [state-owned] banks of Agriculture and Mines & Industries,” said Mr Ansari.

The project exemplifies the modernisation for which Mr Rafsanjani stands. But its complex nature also suggests the challenges any future Iranian president will face in managing development under an Islamic system that severely restricts foreign ownership.

Despite having 10 per cent of the world's oil, Iran has high unemployment and a national income per head of just $2,000. “Without changing to the pistachio, people would already have migrated and the area returned to desert,” says Mirza Ali Hashemi-Bahramani, mayor of Bahraman. “If water isn't supplied in the next 7-8 years this will happen anyway.”"