Sunday, March 06, 2005

MSNBC - Seeking a Pragmatist - Will Rafsanjani Run?

MSNBC - Seeking a Pragmatist: "Seeking a Pragmatist
Iran election: Will Rafsanjani Run?By Maziar Bahari
Newsweek InternationalMarch 14 issue - This June's presidential election promises to be a bittersweet one in Iran. The current president, Mohammad Khatami, was elected in 1997 as a reformist. He made many promises to the country's moderate majority, but has lacked the power and skills to deliver them. In the years since, Iran's clerical hard-liners have tightened their grip on power and swung the country back to its bad old revolutionary days.

advertisement

Though the election is only three months away, nobody has officially declared his candidacy. That's because the hard-liners in the Council of the Guardians, the body that supervises every election and parliamentary bill, will to a large extent manage the outcome. Registered presidential candidates will be vetted by the council, and those deemed undesirable will be forced out of the race. A couple of uninspiring reformists are mulling bids, as are, on the other side, various militarists—individuals who are either former members of the Revolutionary Guards or are supported by them. They represent the extremist tendencies Iranians hoped Khatami would deliver them from.

In such a repressive environment, the next president will not be a democrat. That's left many Iranians hoping for the next best alternative—that a pragmatist will run and win, somebody who can defang the hard-liners and perhaps shift power back to Iran's elected officials. That person could be Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. At 71, he now heads the Expediency Council, a body that mediates between the various branches of the government. His supporters are starting to campaign for him, but so far Rafsanjani has kept everyone guessing about his intentions. He is not hugely popular—according to a recent survey, he has the support of at least 25 percent of the voters in Iran. But Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a reformist journalist who's been criticized for supporting Rafsanjani in the past, considers him the best of a bad lot. "The choice at the moment is between absolute evil and relative evil," says Shamsolvaezin. "There is no chance for a reformist candidate. So the choice is relative evil: Mr. Rafsanjani."

The consensus in Iran is that Rafsanjani will become a presidential candidate only if he knows he will win. In the parliamentary elections in 2000, he was publicly humiliated when he lost to reformists. He is being more careful this time. "He is gauging the public mood, taking advantage of the bickering among potential challengers and denying his opponents the time to criticize him," says Tehran-based political activist Saeid Shariati.

Nobody is under the illusion that Rafsanjani's election would bring a more representative, pluralistic system to Iran. He's a big admirer of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad, who transformed his country from a Third World agricultural economy into an industrial nation. Like Mahathir, Rafsanjani believes that economic prosperity is a prerequisite for political development. During his presidential tenure he sacked revolutionary zealots in his cabinet and replaced them with technocrats. But critics contend that he also gave free rein to the fearsome Ministry of Intelligence, which is believed to have murdered dozens of intellectuals and political activists while he was running the country. And the man often called Iran's Mr. Dealmaker is perceived by many to be corrupt, though there has never been any documented proof of malfeasance. "Rafsanjani reminds you of an old-fashioned carpet salesman," says a senior European diplomat. "Unlike other Iranian officials who usually don't know or care where their interest lies, he's always aware of what is in it for him, in any given situation."

The hard-liners hate Rafsanjani because they believe he turned his back on the revolution's ideals. They see his earlier reign as a period of materialism and moral decadence. But Rafsanjani is also disliked by many reformists, who were ostracized during his presidency and even jailed for brief periods. Most of his supporters are among the masses of apolitical middle-class Iranians who are tired of the fighting between the two sides and want to get on with their lives.

In the past, Rafsanjani has tried to portray himself as the only person who could achieve a rapprochement with the Great Satan. Last week, in a prayer sermon, he said: "I hope the Western powers use wisdom instead of arrogance and bias in their dealings with Iran." The Iranian people would want him to govern their country in the same way—if he takes the plunge."