Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Newsday.com: Iran's Rafsanjani Back for Twilight Run

Newsday.com: Iran's Rafsanjani Back for Twilight Run: "AP World News
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Iran's Rafsanjani Back for Twilight Run

By BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press Writer
June 15, 2005, 4:07 PM EDT
TEHRAN, Iran -- The system has been very good to Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani. His connections and cunning since the 1979 Islamic Revolution have brought him wealth, power and privilege. Now, as the front-runner in Friday's presidential elections, another chapter could open in the Iranian equivalent of a blockbuster: a chance to regain the presidency he held in 1989-97.

Rafsanjani's backers joined in a blitz of distributing fliers and posters Wednesday before the formal end of campaigning. Young supporters chanted his name like cheerleaders. Girls on roller skates buzzed around Tehran with Rafsanjani stickers on their knee-length tunics.

But no one really needs reminding. Rafsanjani has been a staple of debates since he began his deft ascent through the order created by the Islamic revolution of 1979. It has led him the heights of political and business power. His family empire runs an airline, the construction contract to expand the Tehran subway and the largest chunk of Iran's $400 million pistachio export business.

Iranian newspapers say the 70-year-old turban-wearing tycoon is the most likely candidate to win the presidency -- which he left in 1997 because the law did not permit him to run three times in succession.

"He is the most powerful man in Iran," said Muqtedar Khan, a professor of Islamic political studies at Adrian College in Michigan. "He is both a king and a king-maker. He's often been called the power behind the throne."

That is because of his close ties to both the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founding father of the revolution, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on every important matter in Iran.

The state archives contain a postcard that Rafsanjani sent Khamenei from the United States a few years before the revolution. Rafsanjani congratulated Khamenei on his release from the shah's prison, adding: "Maybe one day we'll lead the country."

Some analysts say Rafsanjani may be one of the few politicians capable of challenging Khamenei, who staunchly opposes dialogue with the United States. The outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami, failed to get Khamenei to approve his major reforms.

"I am going for a policy of relaxation of tensions and detente, and this is a policy I will apply toward the United States as well," Rafsanjani said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday.

Rafsanjani portrays himself as the best candidate to handle the sensitive negotiations with the West over Iran's nuclear program, which Washington believes is a cover for building an atomic bomb. Tehran maintains it is for generating electricity.

But Rafsanjani has been a wild card in the past: taking the pro-Western path when it suited him and a hard line on other occasions.

"People say Rafsanjani is a chameleon who is willing to change any way that suits him," supporter Eisa Mardani said at a rally. "But that's better than someone unwilling to listen and change, is it not? These are tense times in our region. We need a president with power, but one that's flexible."

One of four hard-line candidates withdrew from the race Wednesday, heeding the advice of clerics who said the conservative vote was split, state television reported.

Mohsen Rezaei, former head of the elite Revolutionary Guards, had little chance of winning. The other hard-line candidates are former radio and television chief Ali Larijani, former national police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In this campaign, Rafsanjani has been leaning toward the moderates. At a pro-Rafsanjani concert this week, the band played songs in the popular style of Iranian emigres in Los Angeles. The music is banned but still widely tolerated under the social freedoms opened by Khatami.

Rafsanjani was born near the country's pistachio capital, Rafsanjan, in Iran's southeastern desert. His family worked the fields, but he left as a teenager to study under Khomeini in the seminaries of Qom south of Tehran.

Khomeini was exiled in the 1960s, and Rafsanjani joined the anti-shah forces and was jailed several times.

After the revolution, he built his political power as speaker of parliament. Iranian reports say Rafsanjani helped persuade Khomeini to seek an end to the devastating war with Iraq.

As president during the 1990s, Rafsanjani helped ease Iran's international isolation, but he failed to turn around the economy, which sputtered despite huge oil and gas resources.

Rafsanjani, however, grew rich on the cozy system built around state-controlled industrial foundations. He has never disclosed his assets, and he claimed last week to be only a successful "farmer."

Rafsanjani was tainted by a wave of killings of dissidents during and after his presidency in the 1990s. He was never directly implicated in the slayings, which were blamed on Iran's intelligence service, but prominent critics, including the jailed journalist Akbar Gangi, accused Rafsanjani of approving the murders. Gangi has never provided proof.

His most humbling moment came in the parliamentary elections of 2000 when he failed to win a seat. But he retained his position on the influential Expediency Council and has used it for his comeback."