Tuesday, April 26, 2005

FT.com / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani set to run for Iran presidency in June elections

FT.com / Middle East & Africa - Rafsanjani set to run for Iran presidency in June elections: "Rafsanjani set to run for Iran presidency in June elections
By Gareth Smyth in Tehran
Published: April 26 2005 03:00 | Last updated: April 26 2005 03:00

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's influential 70-year-old former president, yesterday gave the clearest indication he would again run for president in June's elections when the reformist Mohammad Khatami stands down.

"The issue of the presidency has occupied my mind, and even though I would like someone else to take the responsibility, I think I'm going to have to swallow this bitter medicine," Mr Rafsanjani said.

But the election has no obvious frontrunner, and Mr Rafsanjani's months of hesitation have delayed the decisions of others.

Politicians have less than three weeks to announce their candidacy. So far, two reformists have declared, and at least six conser-vatives, most hardliners, have expressed interest.

With the election likely to remove the reformists from the presidency, there are domestic and international fears that militant conser- vatives, critical of dealings with the west and suspicious of foreign investment, could add the presidency to the control of the Iranian parliament they gained last year.

European diplomats, who have long expressed frustration at the reformists' inability to carry the regime, see Mr Rafsanjani as the best available choice.

"For eight years we've had blockage in institutions - so Rafsanjani, as a pragmatist with links inside the regime, would be able to bring things forward even if very gradually and slowly," says one senior western diplomat.

While western diplomats do not expect Mr Rafsanjani to promote political reforms at home, they feel he may check the militants' rising influence. "We have to be realistic," said one. "Sometimes that means choosing the bad over the worse."

Mr Rafsanjani has already launched a charm offensive towards the west. His close aides have established quiet contacts with British dip-lomats - a matter of great sensitivity in Iranian politics given Britain's historical role in supporting the Shah.

Mr Rafsanjani's allies have assured western diplomats he could deliver improved relations with Europe and a dialogue with the US.

High among Europe's concerns is Iran's nuclear programme. Its 18-month negotiations with Iran's Supreme National Security Council have been largely with officials close to Mr Rafsanjani, and Europe hopes the talks can lead to the most important agreement with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The SNSC has also opened a channel to the US via Britain over Iraq.

But Mr Rafsanjani's success is far from assured. He is likely to face at least one conservative candidate, as well as Mehdi Karrubi, the former parliamentary speaker who bridges reformist and conservative camps.

Mosharakat, the main reformist party, says the legitimacy of the elections would be in doubt if its candidate, Mostafa Moein, were barred from running."