Thursday, June 16, 2005

Rafsanjani "If he can't, none of the others can." says Tala, a 22-year-old actress

Iran: Rafsanjani's New Mission: "REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
By Stanley Reed

Iran: Rafsanjani's New Mission
The 70-year-old cleric and former President aims to regain the top post, campaigning on the theme of growth and calmer U.S. relations

At front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidential campaign headquarters in Tehran, Siavash Daryabar shows off a vast wall chart of Iran's regions, with hundreds of circles each indicating an office supporting his candidate. Rafsanjani has plenty of backers, but in Iran's increasingly uninhibited political environment, there's also plenty of opposition.

For the last few weeks, Daryabar has been churning out rebuttals to opposition attacks on Rafsanjani for everything from using his influence to enrich himself to being photographed with inappropriately dressed women. "I have never seen such smears," says one campaign veteran. The balloting is set for June 17.

PRAGMATIC POLITICO. Amazingly, Rafsanjani, who served as President from 1989 and 1997, when he was a faithful partner of the conservative mullahs, is showing enough flexibility to take the attacks in stride and even bolster his campaign. The candidate, a 70 year-old cleric, broke new ground in a televised spot on June 11 in which he submitted himself to a grilling from a group of young Iranians.

They peppered Rafsanjani with questions about why he thought he could still make a difference. They also asked whether he had ever committed any embarrassing, youthful indiscretions. His answer to the first: Seeing a changed world had given him a new sense of mission. The answer to the second, to guffaws, was that he was still too embarrassed to talk about his past peccadilloes.

Because of his willingness to engage young voters and because Iranians view him as a pragmatic political heavyweight, Rafsanjani, a one-time aide to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, leads in the polls. So far, though, he hasn't garnered the majority required for a first-round win.

BUSINESS BOOSTER. The other top vote-getters are likely to be Mohammad Baker Qalibaf, a youthful former national police chief backed by some conservatives, and Mustafa Moin, a former Minister of Higher Education, whose support includes many backers of the current President, Mohammed Khatami. If no one gains a majority, the top two candidates will be paired in a runoff a week later.

The assumption now is that Rafsanjani will probably win in a runoff. If so, the victory will vindicate Rafsanjani's campaign theme -- that only he has the experience and gravitas to cool down tense relations with the U.S. over the nuclear issue and set Iran on a path to solid economic growth.

Rafsanjani wants to cut the government's dominant role in the economy through privatization and other boosts for business. In his June 11 broadcast, he said the way to prevent desperate youths from being exploited by rapacious employers was to "bring in the private sector so that companies will be coming after you with job offers."

SPOOKED INVESTORS. Rafsanjani is appealing to Iranians' concerns that their country is falling behind in an increasingly globalized and competitive world. Iran's isolation hurts in both big and small ways. It deprives Iran's vital oil and gas industry of American investment and technology. It requires visitors to import wads of hundred-dollar notes into the country to settle hotel bills and other accounts, since Iran isn't on the international credit-card system. Iran also risks increasing political isolation, thanks to global opposition to its nuclear program and criticism of its human-rights record.

Adding to such worries, Iran's economic growth dropped below 5% for the last fiscal year ending in March, as foreign and domestic investors waited for election results before committing more capital. They were also spooked by high-profile political attacks on foreign investment, including the blocking of the award of a mobil-phone license to a Turkish company.

While 5% growth isn't bad for most countries, it isn't enough to put a dent in Iran's unemployment rate of 14%-plus. The business community hopes that Rafsanjani will repeat the achievements of his first term, when he made the first moves to energize Iran's economy, which is still suffering from lingering damage from the long war with Iraq.

DISMISSING "SMALL PEOPLE". "The next president has to be a leader who can create jobs and push everything forward," says Shahin Shayan Arani, president of Ezam Investment Company. "Rafsanjani is the most qualified person available."

That view is echoed among many young voters. "He's the only real politician with the power to make good on his promises," says Tala, a 22-year-old actress, She says she hopes Rafsanjani will end Iran's estrangement from the U.S., which now stretches back more than a quarter of a century. "If he can't, none of the others can."

And Rafsanjani's rivals for the presidency? His supporters dismiss them out of hand. "We aren't going to choose small people. There's only one person who is serious," says M.J. Asemipour, an adviser to Petroleum Minister Bijan Zanganeh.

NO IDEOLOGICAL QUALMS. Certainly, what a Rafsanjani presidency might look like is clearer than what the other candidates have to offer. He would likely try to take power back from the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who has taken on an increasingly executive role during Khatami's time in office.

That might lead to tensions, but as someone with well-burnished revolutionary credentials, Rafsanjani would have a far better chance than any of the other candidates at making an impact in areas such as foreign relations, where President Khatami has lost control. Some observers even think Rafsanjani will try to push clerics out of most government posts.

In economic matters, Rafsanjani would be expected to try to attract Western investment, and he wouldn't have any ideological qualms about cutting a deal with the U.S., a goal backed by wide swathes of Iranian society. "If they come forward and show good will, we should accept," he said in his campaign broadcast.

MODERATE CONSERVATIVE. It isn't yet clear what such a deal might look like, but the U.S. and Iran would have much to talk about. Rafsanjani would want an end to U.S. economic sanctions and military threats, while the U.S. would want verifiable safeguards on the Iranian nuclear program and good behavior by Iran in neighboring Iraq. Despite the favorable Iranian signals, reaching an agreement could prove agonizingly difficult, thanks to decades of mistrust on both sides.

At the same time, Rafsanjani would split the difference between the liberal reformers and hardliners on issues such as press and political freedom. A moderate conservative, he can be expected to be more tolerant of criticism in the media than the hardliners, who have closed reformist newspapers by the dozen.

Rafsanjani knows that reshaping the regime he did so much to create is bound to be a grueling and often thankless task. But he is apparently determined to take one last shot at burnishing his legacy. That's the best explanation for why, at his age, he wants to return to the meat grinder of Iranian politics. "