Thursday, May 26, 2005

EurasiaNet Eurasia Insight - Iran's President-to-Be Faces Daunting Tasks

EurasiaNet Eurasia Insight - Iran's President-to-Be Faces Daunting Tasks: "EURASIA INSIGHT
Ardeshir Moaveni 5/25/05

Iran’s presidential campaign formally opened May 25, and Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the country’s foremost political tactician, is the early front-runner. Although he’s the likely the winner of the June 17 election, spirited hardliner opposition could prevent him from implementing his reform-oriented political agenda.

In all, eight candidates are presently vying to succeed incumbent reformist President Mohammad Khatami. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The campaign already is putting Rafsanjani’s political skills to the test. Perhaps Iran’s foremost practitioner of pragmatism, the former leading revolutionary, who has already served two terms as president from 1989-97, is reinventing himself as a free-market reformer who would address fundamental socio-economic problems, especially unemployment among young people. At the same time, Rafsanjani is using his previous experience to cast himself as the best available option to handle Iran’s foreign policy challenges, especially international opposition to the country’s nuclear research and Tehran’s tense relationship with the Bush administration.

In keeping with Rafsanjani’s political modus operandi, he is employing different rhetoric during the campaign to suit various audiences. Rafsanjani’s approach towards the United States offers insight into his political nimbleness. In a May 25 interview published by the New York Times, seemingly intended as much for a domestic Iranian audience as for the American public, Rafsanjani came off as defiant, bordering on confrontational, even while contending he could help stabilize US-Iranian relations.

In the interview, he brushed off criticism about Iran’s political system, in which unelected religious bodies hold veto-power over elected officials. He went on to chide the United States for having only a "veneer of democracy," adding that "complicated" US election rules and procedures served to limit American voters’ options. He additionally indicated that he would explore a dialogue aimed at normalizing the US-Iranian relationship, while using language designed to keep his options open. "It [normalization] is not a priority for us, but the current state [of relations] is not reasonable either, he said.

While Rafsanjani may be publicly indifferent on engaging the United States, it seems a different story in private. A source with knowledge of Rafsanjani’s maneuverings told EurasiaNet that the presidential candidate conveyed a back-channel message to US officials several weeks ago, in which he expressed a desire to broaden contacts between Washington and Tehran. In the message, Rafsanjani outlined his intentions for economic and social reforms in the event that he wins the presidency. He also reportedly outlined conditions that the United States would have to meet in order for Iran to open talks aimed at normalization. What makes Rafsanjani’s action all the more noteworthy is that he apparently conveyed the message evidently without the consent of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rafsanjani’s international agenda would seemingly not alter existing Iranian positions. On the nuclear issue, for example, Rafsanjani, one of chief architects of Iran’s nuclear program, is a staunch defender of Tehran’s right to engage in research efforts. Iran has maintained that its nuclear program is oriented toward peaceful applications, namely to expand the country’s atomic energy capacity. The United States and other Western nations insist that Iran’s program aims to produce nuclear weapons. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Some profound domestic changes could occur if Rafsanjani wins the presidency. In addition to pursuing reforms to liberalize the economy, Rafsanjani would reportedly also sanction the gradual easing of social restrictions on women. According to the source, Kish Island, a Persian Gulf resort frequented by foreigners, would be used as a testing ground for measures designed to slowly lift restrictions on attire and social activities for Iranian women.

To secure the type of mandate that would enable him to implement his agenda, Rafsanjani will have to cobble together a broad coalition of support, including religious conservatives, as well as reform-minded elements that formerly counted themselves among his political enemies. For instance, Rafsanjani has courted the votes of reformists by portraying himself as the bulwark against radical conservatives, who have seized control of parliament and who seem intent on pursuing a retrograde social and economic agenda. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

At the same time, Rafsanjani has appealed to influential political and religious leaders -- who are concerned about the increasing concentration of power in the Supreme Leader’s office -- by presenting himself as a counterweight to Ayatollah Khamenei. The Supreme Leader is widely viewed as a supporter of political participation by leaders of Revolutionary Guards, a key institutional enforcer of Islamic orthodoxy. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archives]. Many Iranian political and religious leaders are wary of Revolutionary Guard involvement in domestic politics.

The Rafsanjani-Khamenei rivalry stretches back to the late 1990s, when the Supreme Leader used his influence to block the then-president’s legislative agenda. In January of this year, Rafsanjani gave a lengthy interview to the Iranian Student News Agency in which he apparently sought to diminish the ability of the Supreme Leader to influence the upcoming election. In the interview, Rafsanjani questioned aspects of the existing political system and called for constitutional reform. He attributed Iran’s political deadlock and economic malaise to the lack of formal political parties, a circumstance that he said was "a byproduct of the constitutional prerogatives accorded to our system." Some political analysts interpreted the comments as unprecedented criticism of the Supreme Leader’s authority.

During his political career, Rafsanjani’s opportunistic style has earned him numerous enemies. At present, hardliners are vigorously attacking Rafsanjani, seeking to cripple him politically. CDs containing information purporting to document the involvement of Rafsanjani family members in corrupt practices have gained wide circulation in hardliner circles. In addition to facing the corruption allegations, Rafsanjani must contend with spirited opposition within Iran’s opaque political system coming from neo-conservative legislators and leaders of the Revolutionary Guard.

In little-publicized comments made April 2, Ayatollah Khamenei appeared to fire a salvo at Rafsanjani, saying that the country’s next president, as well as "members of his family," should be free of any tinge of corruption.

Strong opposition to Rafsanjani seems set to continue, even after what looks like a likely presidential victory. In a speech May 2, Ayatollah Khamenei made clear that he would oppose a significant departure from the current political course. "The nation will never allow the next president to veer from the principles and goals of the [1979 Islamic] revolution," the Supreme Leader said.

Editor’s Note: Ardeshir Moaveni is a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian politics.

Posted May 25, 2005 © Eurasianet"