Sunday, June 19, 2005

Telegraph | News | Rafsanjani, greying septuagenarian, positions himself as the 'new voice of Iranian youth'

Telegraph | News | Rafsanjani, greying septuagenarian, positions himself as the 'new voice of Iranian youth': "Rafsanjani, greying septuagenarian, positions himself as the 'new voice of Iranian youth'
By Colin Freeman in Teheran
(Filed: 19/06/2005)

The upmarket district of Fereshteh is the only place in Teheran where the traffic jams are welcome. Every evening, the young and well-to-do of Iran, driving their smartest cars and wearing their best clothes, crawl around a mile-long circuit in the narrow side streets hoping to meet members of the opposite sex.

An Iranian woman shows public support for Mr Rafsanjani
Given that there are no nightclubs or bars, and rendezvous in public parks are often broken up by the ever-vigilant morality police, drive-by dating is the best chance young Iranian men have of meeting a girl.

Pull up alongside a girl in your imported Mazda, tell her your dad is rich - a pistachio baron, perhaps - and she might just hand over her mobile number.

The latest suitor to have gone a-wooing round Fereshteh, however, is not a love-lorn twentysomething but a grey-haired, septuagenarian cleric by the name of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was on the hunt for votes.

In one of the most audacious bids ever to capture a "youth" vote, the conservative Islamic revolutionary rebranded himself for Iran's bitterly-fought presidential election last Friday as a champion of the young, using a Western-style marketing campaign that owed more to Nike than the Koran.

Not only did the 70-year-old former president open a campaign office on Fereshteh's sunset strip, he also hired an army of hip, happening underlings to spread his message across the capital.

With half of Iran's 47 million eligible voters under the age of 25, none of the seven presidential candidates could afford to ignore their power.

Thanks to work by Mr Rafsanjani's supporters in recent weeks, his campaign stickers can be seen all over Teheran, wrapped around lamp-posts and plastered on pavements, cars and motorbikes, even adorning the headscarves of attractive young women.

Leading up to Friday's polls, crowds of young supporters held "spontaneous" rallies in his honour, and celebrated Iran's recent qualifying victory in football's World Cup by chanting his name.

Which, incidentally, is no longer "Mr Rafsanjani", "His Holiness', or "His Excellency". Instead, he now styles himself simply as "Hashemi" - his middle name, and a form of address usually reserved for intimate acquaintances.

Were Michael Howard to campaign as "Mick", cynical western youngsters would laugh him off the stump. In Iran's theocratic regime, however, the elderly, turbaned cleric hoped to make the young electorate, worried about Iran's shaky economy, with unemployment at 11 per cent and rising, and strained relations with the rest of the world, feel empowered rather than patronised.

As the election results came in yesterday, the signs were that the strategy of running on a liberal ticket, presenting himself as a steady leader in uneasy times, was working for Mr Rafsanjani.

He narrowly clinched top spot in the poll and must now contest an unprecedented two-man presidential "run-off" vote next Friday. To widespread amazement in Iran, his opponent will be the unfancied Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the mayor of Teheran and a staunch backer of the hardline religious leadership. Mr Ahmadinejad, whose success was such a shock that he had no podium from which to address his victorious campaign supporters, appeared to have won the votes of Iran's pious poor.

The man who had been expected to push Mr Rafsanjani all the way, the reformist cleric Mehdi Karroubi, claimed last night that the election had been rigged.

In contrast to Mr Rafsanjani's courting of the western media, Mr Ahmadinejad, a former fighter in the Revolutionary Guards, styled himself as a "fundamentalist'' who represents the core values of the Islamic revolution.

He campaigned against improving relations with the US, which have been badly damaged by Washington's belief that Teheran is pursuing a secret nuclear weapons programme, an accusation Iran denies. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme ruler, declared that Iran had delivered a blow to President George W Bush by voting en masse. "With your solid, collective and glorious presence, once again you defused the conspiracy of your enemy," he said in a message read out on state television yesterday.

Among the voters on whom Mr Rafsanjani will be counting in the run-off is Ali Baktiari, a 19-year-old engineering student who was converted to the "brand" after running into a trendy couple campaigning outside Hashemi's election HQ. "Normally when I go spinning around at Fereshteh I don't get many girls paying attention because I only drive an old hatchback," he said. "Then this girl came over with a male friend and gave me a campaign leaflet. Hashemi is the only one who offered an exciting campaign."

Mr Rafsanjani's adept marketing is all the more remarkable given his credentials as one of the regime's most grizzled hardliners. His pedigree stretches back to before the 1979 revolution, when he studied Islam under the future leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. He commanded Iran's armed forces during the war with Iraq, and previously served as president after Khomeini's death, between 1989 and 1997.

Critics say that his new image is little more than a cynical tactic by an unprincipled political chameleon. The man reinventing himself as everyone's favourite grand father, they point out, has previously been linked to the murders of political opponents and four years ago gave an impassioned speech in favour of Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Other observers, however, say that Mr Rafsanjani is a pragmatist who believes he has the clout to break his fellow mullahs' grip on Iran and push through longoverdue modernisation. His manifesto pledges economic reform and dialogue with the US, and he has even allowed his wife to discard the hijab.

On an MTV-style campaign video, he underwent a grilling from a panel of young people about the lack of promised social reforms, something mullahs would not previously have tolerated. "Many people are unhappy with the performance of the regime...and some have even turned against the revolution," he acknowledged during the broadcast. Daringly he also conceded that friendships between unmarried young men and women could be a "good thing".

Whether Mr Rafsanjani will live up to his new image if returned to office remains to be seen. Rumour has it that during the campaign he used his influence to ensure that Iran's morality police kept a low profile around the streets of Fereshteh while his team canvassed on his behalf.

Those who bought into his message will no doubt be hoping that those police will not return."