Thursday, May 26, 2005

MEI: The return of Rafsanjani

MEI: The return of Rafsanjani: "The return of Rafsanjani
From Reza Farzad in London

May 26th, 2005 -- After months of speculation, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former speaker of parliament and president and current head of the powerful Expediency Council, made a long public statement on 10 May announcing his candidacy in Iran’s
presidential elections in June. He had thought long and hard, but a sense of responsibility arising from the gravity of the problems facing the nation had weighed heavily on his shoulders, he said, and left him no alternative but to enter the race. He appealed to voters for a new mandate to combat extremism, improve the economy and bring about peaceful coexistence with the international community.

Rafsanjani has displayed considerable irritation, indeed dismay, of late at the series of attacks launched by his political rivals on what he and his supporters regard as an outstanding legacy of achievement in office — all the more outstanding, according to him, because it took place in the immediate aftermath of the war with Iraq and against the backdrop of a hostile international environment.

But was this not another attempt by Rafsanjani, some quickly asked, to reintroduce himself as the champion of reform and progress? Still others have put forward more sinister motives for his candidacy. As a true Machiavellian, one argument runs, Rafsanjani could hardly resist the emptations of power and fame associated with the president’s office. Whatever his motives, however, Rafsanjani faces a difficult time ahead, first as a candidate, and then, if elected, in implementing his agenda as president.

Opposition runs deep

Opposition to Rafsanjani’s candidacy runs deep within certain quarters of the political establishment, particularly the radical elements within the conservative camp. This group has always opposed what it views as Rafsanjani’s liberal opinions on political and social issues and his willingness to enter into a dialogue with the United States. They also hold him responsible for paving the way for the election of Mohammed Khatami as president in 1997.

The radical conservatives won successive victories in the 2003 municipal elections and the 2004 parliamentary poll. With their allies already in control of the Judiciary, Rafsanjani is probably the major obstacle to the presidency as well. As soon as it became clear he was considering running for president again the group tried hard to prevent his candidacy through repeated attacks, including on his family. With Rafsanjani’s candidacy declared, there is every reason to believe these attacks will escalate. Sources close to Rafsanjani have already spoken of a systematic plan by the conservatives to tarnish his name and record even further. Such a campaign could do enough damage to prevent Rafsanjani from winning the election.

Rafsanjani also faces considerable opposition from within the reformist camp. He was criticized for his record on political and social liberties while in office and his subsequent failure to come out in open support for Khatami’s government and its reformist programme, even for his own allies and former ministers, including the popular former mayor of Tehran, Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, who was arrested and subsequently jailed on what were widely perceived as trumped up corruption charges in 1998.

Mehdi Karrubi, the leading reformist candidate, also a former speaker of parliament, went quickly on the offensive after Rafsanjani’s announcement, charging that many of the problems facing Iran today stemmed from the time of his presidency. But other reformists believe that previous attacks on Rafsanjani — particularly in the 1998-99 period — and the failure to court his support against the conservative backlash were strategic mistakes that ultimately led to the reformists’ demise. This current now sees him as the only person capable of stopping the conservatives winning the election. This alone has seen them refrain from attacking him and his record. There is little to suggest that this is anything more than a tactical position.

Public opinions polls, of admittedly uncertain degrees of reliability, consistently show Rafsanjani ahead of his rivals but far short of winning a convincing victory. The election campaign has been unprecedented in terms of the tactics used and frankness of views aired by the candidates. Yet it has generated little enthusiasm amongst an increasingly young and educated electorate, which, tired of the old slogans, is looking for a fresh face willing to break away from the past and present a clear route to a more open, democratic and prosperous future.

Rafsanjani seems to understand the seismic shift that has taken place in Iran over the last two decades and his recent statement was supposed to appeal to voters who, as he put it, have a right to security, prosperity and liberty.

Yet herein lies the problem. For many his candidacy presents a continuation of the present — perhaps even a reversal to more restricted times in the past — rather than a springboard to the future. For the past 26 years, ever since he read out Ayatollah Khomeini’s decree appointing Mehdi Bazargan head of the provisional government only days before the fall of the Shah’s regime, Rafsanjani has been the most visible face of the Islamic Republic, serving on its highest decision-making bodies and, in the eyes of many, associated with some of its most excessive policies.

Rafsanjani's record

This record is the subject of much debate in Iran today. His role in the continuation of the war with Iraq after Iran had gained the upper hand in 1982, the nature and impact of his economic policies during his presidency — including soaring inflation and the spread of corruption — the closed political and socio-cultural environment, the murder and imprisonment of intellectuals and writers, and even his foreign policy, which by early 1997 had seen the withdrawal of European Union ambassadors and a heightened state of tension with the Clinton Administration, are all now under close scrutiny.

Rafsanjani and his supporters have tried hard to defend his record. They have spoken of their success in liberalizing the wartime economy he inherited in 1989 and raising living standards. Rafsanjani continuously argues that the economic progress of recent years, as well as the whole reform movement, are products of his economic and social policies. He has also pointed towards the marked improvement in relations with the Gulf littoral states during his presidency.

Yet defending such a visible and hotly contested record and at the same inspiring hope for change in the future is a monumental task. It is far from clear how the public, given current circumstances, will respond on election day. Already over 70, Rafsanjani might be seen as out of touch and out of step with the demands of the majority of a young population. On the other hand, despite apparent widespread apathy, he could still score a convincing win if the public becomes concerned enough at the prospect of a radical conservative president to turn out and vote in large numbers.

If he wins, Rafsanjani will face an array of domestic and foreign policy challenges. Of the latter, the most pressing is currently the controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In spite of rhetoric to the contrary, he knows that Iran has paid a heavy price for its policies towards the US over the past 26 years. He is also well aware that the nuclear issue seems to have put the two countries on a collision course. Whether or not he is able to break with the long-established taboos on bilateral relations and enter into direct negotiations with Washington remains to be seen, but there is perhaps a perception among some of the electorate that he is the most likely of the presidential candidates to do so.

Iran is experiencing a period of unprecedented change, driven by a young population whose desire for a better and less restricted life is underpinned by demands for recognition of democratic values, human rights and personal and economic freedoms at home, as well as peaceful interaction with the outside world.

Accommodating these demands will require a range of policies from structural change in state institutions to the attraction of foreign investment and rooting out corruption — which could threaten the very foundations of the Republic. Would Rafsanjani be willing at least to try to lay the foundations for breaking out of the current impasse or will he try to maintain the status quo against all odds? One thing is certain: if elected, time is not on Rafsanjani’s side."