Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Smear Is On - Mud Slinging by The Australian [May 12, 2005]

The Australian: Ex-leader in race for Iran presidency [May 12, 2005]: "Ex-leader in race for Iran presidency
This election could be a case of back to the future for Tehran, writes Richard Beeston
May 12, 2005
A FOUNDING leader of the Iranian revolution who promoted militant Islam in the Middle East and led his country through war has emerged as the favourite to be elected president.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, who left the presidency eight years ago, announced through spokesman Reza Soleimani that he has joined the campaign for the elections on June 17.

"Rafsanjani will enter the race and in a few hours he will publish a statement to announce his candidacy," Mr Soleimani said.

The decision came as little surprise. Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani - the honorific title "hojatoleslam" means "proof of Islam" and is given to middle-ranking Shia clerics known as mujtahidis - is one of the most powerful and ambitious figures in Iran.

He has rarely been far from the centre of power since he helped Ayatollah Khomeini overthrow the Shah in revolution 25 years ago.

Although Rafsanjani will be challenged by younger and more hardline candidates loyal to the conservative Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he is regarded as the favourite at this early stage of the contest.

Iran's future president will inherit heavy responsibilities from Mohammad Khatami, a reformer whose attempts at modernising Iran and improving relations with the West failed in the face of resistance from religious ideologues.

The new leader will have to fend off a looming showdown with the US over what Washington sees as Iran's nuclear weapons program.

He must also decide whether the country still wants to promote Islamic revolution in the Middle East at a time when the trend is moving from bullets to ballots.

Rafsanjani's features may have grown a little heavier and his hair turned whiter and thinner, but those who know him insist his mind is as sharp as it was when he was last president.

For more than 30 years at the heart of the Iranian regime he has proved himself to be ruthless but flexible, a war leader and a peacemaker -- and above all a pragmatist prepared to cut deals with anyone when it suits his interests. His nickname is Kusheh, which in Persian means "Shark" -- a reference to Rafsanjani's smooth features and ruthless reputation.

A self-made millionaire, with ties to everything from pistachio exports to heavy industry, the shrewd tactician emerged from the chaos of the Iranian revolution as the most powerful figure in the country after the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

It was often Rafsanjani, Kalashnikov rifle clutched in his hand, who delivered the famous Friday sermons at Tehran University, where the regime's anti-Western tirades would be greeted by chants of "Death to America".

During the eight-year war with Iraq, Rafsanjani often took day-to-day responsibility for operations at the battlefront, where hundreds of thousands were killed in the trenches.

He was directly involved in what became known as "Irangate" - the secret negotiations with the Reagan administration in 1985 for the trade of Western hostages held in Lebanon in return for illegal arms shipments to Iran. He is also credited with persuading Khomeini to bring the Iran-Iraq war to an end.

Under his leadership, diplomatic efforts were made to restore relations with Britain -- formerly branded as the "Little Satan" to the US's "Great Satan".

Rafsanjani is thought to favour a Chinese model of reform that would liberalise Iran's economy and grant greater personal freedoms to the people, but keep the Islamic regime firmly in control.

His pragmatism is encouraging hopes in the West that he may resolve the 26-year conflict with the US that prompted George W. Bush to include Iran in his infamous "axis of evil" trio.

The US is expected to renew efforts to isolate Tehran if the Iranians persist with their nuclear program. Iran says its program is for peaceful power, but Washington claims it is a cover for weapons.

But a new Iran-US clash is not inevitable in a region undergoing profound change. A Shia Muslim government, with close links to Tehran, has just been elected in Iraq with US help.

Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese militia backed by Iran, is considering becoming a political party. Militant Palestinian groups supported by Iran are also moving from violence to peaceful campaigns to end Israeli occupation.

These contradictory forces could confound the best efforts of the most able leader. In the eyes of some Iranians, Hojatoleslam Rafsanjani may be too rich, too old or too compromised for the task. But he is the only candidate with the experience and political muscle for the job.

The Times "