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Michael Jansen: ‘The comeback kid’
May 20, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today
For the moment, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani looks like the “comeback kid” of the country’s presidential campaign. At 79, he knows this is his last chance and if he passes muster with the Guardian Council, which vets candidates, he could very well win. The final list of candidates is set to be announced tomorrow.

Registration closed on May 11th, with 686 signed up to contest. Ten are likely to receive approval.

A close associate of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of Iran’s Islamic republic, Rafsanjani, a pragmatist rather than an ideologue, is now seen as the middle-of-the road contender, a figure who can “fix” the broken economy, and restore balance in relations with the international community. 

He may be able to count on at least a modicum of protection from Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose succession was engineered by Rafsanjani. However, Rafsanjani is highly critical of government policies over the past eight years while Khamenei, who is ultimately responsible for

giving them his seal of approval, defends these policies, creating tensions between the two men. Furthermore, conservatives continue to rail at Rafsanjani for a speech supporting the reformist Green Movement protests against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

When Rafsanjani made his last-minute registration as a candidate he surprised both Iranian voters and pundits who suddenly said the election had suddenly become “interesting.”

He took this decision because he, reportedly, has Khamenei’s tacit support for the bid but it is not known whether the ayatollah will press the Guardian Council to let Rafsanjani stand, extend direct backing to his old friend of half a century or bless someone else.

In preparation for this key election, Khamenei may have followed the example of Khomeini and decided to back two horses in a divide and rule strategy aimed at boosting interest in the contest and getting out the vote which is essential as periodic widespread participation renews the legitimacy of the regime.

By taking such a decision, Khamenei may be bucking the opposition of the conservative camp which accuses Rafsanjani of intervening on the side of the reformists at a critical juncture in the brutal suppression of anti-Ahmadinejad protests.

It must not be forgotten that Khamenei appointed Rafsanjani head of the powerful Expediency Council which is tasked with resolving issues between the country’s elected and unelected clerical structures.

Iranians calling for reform argue that Rafsanjani is the only figure capable of effecting change.  Representatives of businessmen, university students and professors, professionals and supporters of former reformist President Muhammad Khatami appealed to him to run.

A multi-millionaire businessman, Rafsanjani is seen as the best bet to put the chaotic – afflicted by both international sanctions and mismanage-ment – back on track. Since he presided over a successful reconstruction programme after the eight year Iran-Iraq war, he is also regarded as the man to take charge now.

Other candidates include Ahmadinejad’s former chief-of-staff and chosen successor, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei; nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, regarded as Khamenei’s choice; Tehran mayor Muhammad-Bagher Qalibaf; and former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.

The conservatives have unsheathed their knives with the aim of cutting Rafsanjani down to size but, in spite of his wealth, his involvement in killings of regime opponents in the 1980s, and corruption, he still stands head and shoulders above all his conservative rivals, whose records are hardly more clean.

If the Guardians Council approves multiple conservative candidates as well as Rafasanjani, his chances of winning could improve because they would be taking votes from one another while he would have the endorsement of proponents of change. 

He chose as his campaign slogan “moderation,” a word that could be music to the ears of many in Iran as well as the Arab world and the West after eight years of immoderate confrontation under Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani’s website states, “We should not be afraid to engage with the world.” The message is in English, showing that he is prepared for engagement and dialogue. Reze Marashi, director of research at the National Iranian American Council, observed, “Rafsanjani has always played the role of …arbitrator.” Therefore, although “the core positions [in negotiations with the West] may not change, there would be greater space for sequencing [of the easing of sanctions and the ending of 20 per cent uranium enrichment] and confidence-building measures.”

Unfortunately, Washington has, so far, rejected the “grand bargain” proposed by Tehran.  This would include a wide-ranging agreement not only on curbing Iran’s nuclear programme but also the drug trade, Afghanistan, Palestine and Syria.

However, if Rafsanjani was president, the Obama administration, now in its second term, might be ready to consider a wide agenda in talks.  Rafsanjani will, unfortunately, be wary of US intentions. While he was president between 1989 and 1997, he exerted pressure on groups holding Western hostages in Lebanon to set their captives free but received nothing in return. He had expected an easing of relations from the US and its allies. 

Instead, Rafsanjani received a slap in the face.  Iran’s first post-shah oil contract – valued at $1 billion – with the US oil multinational Conoco was ruled out by President Bill Clinton who banned US firms from investing in Iran’s oil sector.

It is significant that Clinton’s chief adviser at the time was Dennis Ross, a committed Zionist, who said, “We weren’t interested in creating a new opening towards Iran. We were interested in containing what we saw as a threat” from Iran. In 1996, Congress, regarded by critics as “Israeli occupied territory,” passed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, barring trade with both countries. 

While Obama unwisely chose Ross as his first-term adviser on Iranian affairs, he is now out of the picture. But Congress is even more under the thumb of Israel than ever and can be expected to block any attempt by the administration to reach a deal with Tehran. The objective of Congress and Israel is “regime change” rather changing the behaviour of the regime although, given the regime’s preponderance of power in Iran, “regime change” is highly unlikely.

The US has not yet recovered from the 1979 overthrow of the shah by a regime hostile to Washington’s regional agenda and is, in fact, growing increasingly confrontational toward the cleric-dominated regime in Tehran instead of adopting a more conciliatory approach that could produce an uneasy rapprochement.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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