Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - It's Rafsanjani's moment, once again

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - It's Rafsanjani's moment, once again: "It's Rafsanjani's moment, once again

By Mahan Abedin
Commentary by
Wednesday, June 01, 2005
The Iranian presidential election scheduled for June 17 promises to be much more exciting and competitive than had been anticipated. The are several prominent contenders, including Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the former national police chief, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nezhad, the mayor of Tehran, Mustafa Moin, a former culture and higher education minister, Ali Larijani, the former head of state broadcasting, and of course Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president and the current head of the Expediency Council.

It is Rafsanjani's bid for the presidency that makes the elections meaningful. After all, whoever succeeds President Mohammad Khatami will have to contend with a serious foreign policy challenge, namely relations with the United States, particularly over the nuclear issue, that has enormous implications for Iran's national security and geopolitical fortunes. A brilliantly instinctive politician, Rafsanjani implausibly declared that he had "reluctantly" agreed to again stand for office. While he has many friends and enemies, it is important to examine Rafsanjani's past record, if only to assess his suitability for the presidency.

Hashemi Rafsanjani has been a central figure at the commanding heights of the Iranian state for the past 26 years. His cool demeanor, Cheshire cat smile and public-speaking skills reflect impeccable political instincts. Rafsanjani's ability to fuse ideological conviction, foresight, coalition-building and political intrigue makes him the ultimate politician, and a unique one in modern Iranian history.

But Rafsanjani's political acumen is not what is in question. Hotly contested is his impact on Iranian politics and economy over the past quarter century. Rafsanjani is widely thought to have played a stabilizing role in the 1980s, helping to contain the more extreme passions of Iran's revolutionaries and thus consolidating the gains of the revolution. In his capacity as speaker of Parliament, he was a highly important balancing figure between the right-wing presidency of Ali Khamenei and the left-wing premiership of Mir Hossein Moussavi. Moreover, Rafsanjani's balancing act received added weight and credibility by virtue of the fact that he enjoyed the full support of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Some of Iran's reformists have tried to blemish Rafsanjani's record by pointing to his role in prolonging the Iran-Iraq war. The accusation is unfair, not least because the dynamics that determined the course of the war were incredibly complex and certainly impossible to reduce to the behavior of any single personality.

While Rafsanjani's record in the 1980s is often described as decisively constructive, the same assessment is not made of his record as president in the 1990s. Rafsanjani was elected in July 1989, only a month after the death of Khomeini, an event of epic importance in the history of post-revolutionary Iran. Despite this, Rafsanjani assumed the presidency with high expectations. Iranians anticipated massive reconstruction and regeneration after the losses sustained in the eight-year war with Iraq.

Their expectations were largely unfulfilled, as Rafsanjani proved to be a less than brilliant economic manager. Although his administration presided over large-scale privatizations, in reality many of the ventures were acquired by corrupt government cronies. With respect to broader macro-economic policies, Rafsanjani largely oversaw the dismantling of the gains made by the Moussavi government. For instance, the sudden removal of some subsidies had a terrible impact on the poorer classes, who constitute the core supporters of the Iranian revolution. The failure of Rafsanjani and the so-called "technocratic" faction loyal to him to implement the centerpiece of their economic reform program - namely reintroducing large-scale foreign investments - attested to the limits of the president's influence within the complex power structures of the Islamic Republic.

The Rafsanjani presidency was also a failure on the political front. Apart from the suppressive cultural climate of the 1990s (rooted in the gradual empowerment of right-wing factions), Rafsanjani, either through ignorance or willful neglect, enabled the emergence of "rogue" elements in the country's security and intelligence community. This culminated in the "serial" murders case of late 1998, which was a major embarrassment to the country's judicial and security authorities. Rafsanjani's critics allege that these developments were yet another reversal of the gains made in the 1980s, when for the first time in its modern history Iran had developed a disciplined and law-abiding security apparatus.

In hindsight it is clear that Rafsanjani's failure to deliver meaningful economic reforms and his inability to stem the influence of extreme right-wing factions were decisive factors in producing the Khatami phenomenon of 1997, which led to serious confrontations between the country's reform movement and entrenched ideological and commercial interests. However, eight years later and with the reform movement no longer a serious force in Iranian politics, Rafsanjani is geared for yet another comeback.

Although the lineup of presidential contenders is impressive and the election promises to be closely contested, it is unlikely that Rafsanjani will lose. In fact, given his enormous clout and influence, there is only one person in the country who could defeat him in a presidential race: the popular Mir Hossein Moussavi. But last year Moussavi indicated his intention not to run. His political posturing may indicate he intends to contest the presidential election of 2009, when he expects the country's political climate to be more favorable to his style of leadership.

Thus, we are almost assured of a Rafsanjani presidency for the next four years, a period that will likely be marked by serious diplomatic (and possibly military) confrontation between Iran and the U.S. Given that Iran is now faced with a serious external threat, Rafsanjani is probably the right man for the presidency. His mastery of political intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering will certainly trouble Washington, which seems determined to deny Iran the right to develop a nuclear infrastructure.

Looking beyond the next four years, however, it is quite possible that Rafsanjani will not run in 2009. If so, that would make him the first Iranian president since October 1981 not to complete eight years in office. Rafsanjani will be 74 in 2009, and by then the reformists will have surely regrouped under a new credible leadership, possibly under Moussavi. It is thus difficult to escape the conclusion that Rafsanjani is being propelled into the presidency to normalize Iran's geopolitical environment and help avoid a catastrophic confrontation with the Americans.

Mahan Abedin is editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation, a nonprofit organization specializing in research and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here are his own. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR."