Sunday, June 12, 2005

Iran's leader-in-waiting voices democratic dream - Sunday Times - Times Online

Iran�s leader-in-waiting voices democratic dream - Sunday Times - Times Online: "The Sunday Times - World

June 12, 2005
Iran’s leader-in-waiting voices democratic dream
Ali Bandari, Tehran

THE former Iranian leader, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is poised to come first in Friday’s presidential election after a campaign that has raised prospects of improved relations with the West.

Although he is now the frontrunner, Rafsanjani is unlikely to secure enough votes to win the presidency outright and faces a second poll.

He wears the same clerical attire as the religious leaders who have long railed against America — the “Great Satan” — but has promised to breathe life into Iran’s ailing economy by breaking down the cultural and economic barriers that have isolated the Islamic republic from the West.

His election pamphlets promise a “transition to democracy” and he has spoken openly of implementing social reforms, including the repeal of a ban on women’s attendance at football matches.

Such talk has made him enemies, however — among them Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, who has pointedly urged voters to elect a president who will defend the ideals of the Islamic republic.

Rafsanjani, 70, the president from 1989-97, has emphasised there is “no doubt that America is a superpower of the world and we cannot ignore them”, adding that Iran has “never pioneered enmities”.

Relations with the West, however, were far from rosy during Rafsanjani’s previous reign. In 1997 the European Union severed diplomatic links with Iran after a German court blamed Rafsanjani and other prominent figures in Tehran for the murder of Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin restaurant in 1992.

Even Rafsanjani’s pro-western incarnation is unlikely to give any ground over the Islamic republic’s nuclear plans. The West accuses Tehran of pursuing a weapons programme, but Rafsanjani recently claimed that yielding to western demands would be “like giving away part of our territory”. Most Iranians believe their country is acting in its best economic interests, in accordance with obligations under international treaties.

Nevertheless, Rafsanjani’s rhetoric sounds positively forward-thinking in a country where anti-American criticism is so prevalent that Khamenei has called on his people to vote for the candidate “with whom the enemy is least happy”.

The Rafsanjani campaign has captured the imagination of a public tired of global isolation and seemingly endless financial woes. Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing president, leaves behind him a collective wariness of hollow promises. His two-term presidency was marred by a string of frustrated reforms and a slow erosion of liberal powers in the Majlis, or parliament.

Rather than abandon their hopes for improved quality of life, most Iranians are simply adjusting their aspirations. Economic rather than cultural reforms are now seen as the most likely path to social stability — a change of mood that has helped Rafsanjani to a 27% opinion poll rating, making him the clear leader in a field of eight candidates.

He is also helped by his well-cultivated image as a pragmatic conservative who straddles both ends of the political spectrum. While rivals’ campaign posters depict them in Rodinesque states of contemplation, Rafsanjani’s show him striding resolutely into the future.

His determination is seen as the antidote to eight years of floundering by Khatami, a frustrated intellectual who once telephoned the supreme leader to ask if he could shake President Bill Clinton’s hand at the United Nations. Permission was denied.

Rafsanjani’s camp has made a concerted effort to appeal to Iran’s beleaguered liberals. Pictures of him chatting openly with boys and girls in “un-Islamic” attire were published by enraged conservative websites but served only to improve his popularity among the young.

When Khamenei intervened last month to reinstate two disqualified reformist candidates, Mostafa Moin and Mohsen Mehralizadeh, to the electoral roster many saw it as an underhand attempt to dilute Rafsanjani’s chances of victory.

Moin, a former higher education minister campaigning on a platform of press, public and political freedoms, surged into second place in a poll published yesterday. However, if no one wins 50% of the votes on Friday, as seems likely, the top two candidates will face each other in a run-off.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Tehran, is the only presidential candidate to have made no attempt to appeal to liberal voters, although his radicalism — exemplified by a pledge to chop off the hands of corrupt officials — has brought him popularity among traditionalists."