Saturday, June 18, 2005

Rafsanjani faces fight for power - Sunday Times - Times Online

Rafsanjani faces fight for power - Sunday Times - Times Online: "The Sunday Times - World

June 19, 2005
Rafsanjani faces fight for power
Marie Colvin, Tehran
Run-off to decide Iranian election

THE former Iranian leader, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, will face the hardline mayor of Tehran this Friday in an unprecedented run-off for the presidency after failing to secure an outright victory in the first round of voting.
Rafsanjani, 70, a Machiavellian cleric with a Cheshire cat smile, won only 21% of the votes after a campaign in which he wooed the country’s youth by portraying himself as a reformist. Some 70% of Iranians are under 30 and many are chafing at the bindings of the strict Islamic regime.

Rafsanjani’s lead in the results announced yesterday was much smaller than predicted. In what has turned into the closest election since the 1979 Islamic revolution, he faces a second round run-off against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 49, who has promised to “chop off the hands” of corrupt officials.

Ahmadinejad shocked observers by winning 19% of the votes cast on Friday. He was said to have been backed by the powerful Revolutionary Guards and the pious poor, who warmed to his anti-American rhetoric. Mehdi Karroubi, 68, a moderate cleric popular in rural areas, came third with 17.5%.

One of the greatest surprises was a poor showing by Mostafa Moin, 54, a reformer who secured just 14%. The frontrunner among liberals, he was popular with young people because of his pledge to protect the press, public and political freedoms and to release political prisoners. Members of the defeated reformist camp were expected to gather in Tehran today to plan their next move.

Analysts said Rafsanjani was likely to win the run-off as reformist voters switched to him to keep out Ahmadinejad.

Mohammad Reza-Khatami, the brother of Mohammad Khatami, the outgoing president, and a leading Moin supporter, said the Rafsanjani camp had called to ask for their backing in the second round. “With our support Ahmadinejad can be defeated,” said Rafsanjani’s aide.

Moin appeared to have been hurt by calls among his supporters for a boycott of the election. Arguing that no single candidate could make a difference under the theocratic system invented by Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader, they demand a constitutional system where clerics do not have supreme power.

The turnout of 62% was higher than expected; hard-line leaders claimed that George W Bush, the American president, had boosted it by criticising the vote as undemocratic, angering many Iranians.

In Tehran, offices came to a standstill yesterday as workers crowded around televisions, alternately cheering and grimacing at the updated results with an excitement normally reserved for football matches.

As Rafsanjani’s predicted cakewalk began to look more like a hike across hot coals, everyone became a half-time expert. “He manipulated Iran’s youth because he knew they were the ones who didn’t remember the problems of his first two terms,” said Mohammed, a finance worker from north Tehran. “But he leant too far in that direction and lost the confidence of more conservative voters.”

Amir, a web designer, sat smoking outside his office. “It’s too hectic in there,” he said. “People are falling out. I think I’m going home.”

Asked for his predictions on the second round, he erred on the side of caution.

“In Iran you learn to expect the unexpected, especially in politics. That’s why I was dubious of Rafsanjani’s confidence from day one: in this country there’s no such thing as a sure thing.”

Rafsanjani had appeared to position himself cleverly as the reformist who least alienated the conservatives and as the conservative with whom the reformists were least unhappy.During one campaign appearance he provoked laughter among a young audience when he admitted to “doing things as a young man that I would not confess to now”.

The cleric’s attempt to assume a new guise as the cuddly and tolerant uncle of the young generation might seem to be stretching credibility but his image makeover has been at least partly successful.
In the run-up to the vote his campaign headquarters pounded to the sound of loud rock music, once banned in Iran, and young men and women bustled in and out. Groups of youths flocked at street corners and staged light-hearted commando-style raids into the stalled traffic to plaster his bumper stickers on cars.

These proclaimed him “Hashemi” in English rather than Rafsanjani — as if he were a friend with whom voters should be on first name terms. It also seemed intended to disassociate him from the worst excesses of his last period in office that ended in 1997.

Elected in August 1989, only two months after the death of Khomeini, a seismic event in the history of the Islamic republic, Rafsanjani was criticised for ignoring — if not approving — the murder of the regime’s opponents in Europe by hit squads sent from Tehran.

He was also accused of failing to provide much-needed economic reforms and presiding over widespread corruption.

During the 1980s as the powerful speaker of the Majlis, or national assembly, Rafsanjani played a pivotal role in the Iran-contra scandal, which revolved around secret arms sales to Iran to ransom US hostages held in Lebanon and to fund contra rebels fighting Nicaragua’s leftist government.

As to the future, Rafsanjani has kept his options open by remaining as ambiguous as ever in his statements. During the campaign he promised “a new form of interaction with the world” which Iranians took to mean that he would seek an opening with Washington.

“We don’t have any problems with the people and the country of the United States,” he said in an interview with Time magazine earlier this month. “It is possible to end hostilities.”

However, Rafsanjani’s condition — that the Americans must first unblock the billions in Iranian funds frozen since the Islamic revolution — looks unlikely to be met by Bush.

Crucial will be his stance over the Islamic republic’s two-year cat-and-mouse game with America and the European Union over its nuclear ambitions. Washington has accused Tehran of trying to build a nuclear bomb.

Rafsanjani has said Tehran has the right to continue with a civilian nuclear programme. But in an apparent softening of his stance, he appears to have dropped his earlier insistence that Iran had the right to nuclear weapons as long as Israel possessed them. Characteristically, he stopped short of making any concrete promises.

Additional reporting: Ali Bandari"