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Rafsanjani’s Presidential Bid Elicits Hope, Scorn

TEHRAN, May 16 2013 (IPS) - The last-minute entry of former president and current chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani into the presidential polls set for Jun. 14 has inspired vastly different reactions in a conflicted Iran.

Chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi/cc by 2.0

Chair of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi/cc by 2.0

Those calling for change hail his candidacy as a hopeful sign. Deeming his entry a response to serious societal demands, even many reformists think that as a centrist, Rafsanjani is the best choice for changing the direction the country has taken under the eight-year presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Prior to his decision to enter the fray, representatives of many groups, including the business community and university students and professors, had met and appealed to Rafsanjani to run. Even many reformists and supporters of former president Mohammad Khatami thought that Rafsanjani would be a better candidate to challenge the conservatives’ hold over the country.

Ali, one of the protesters who took to the streets after the 2009 disputed election, considers Rafsanjani the best choice since “he is faithful to the foundations of the Islamic Republic and [the 1979] revolution and also has sufficient personal power to create not only a balance in the relations between the president and the Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], but also return the country to a normal situation with the collaboration of the latter.”

Likewise, many in the business community see Rafsanjani as the right person to rectify what they consider to be the “economic mess” Ahmadinejad’s administration has created.

One source, who spoke with IPS on condition of anonymity, said, “Hashemi [Rafsanjani] has the experience of reconstruction after the [Iran-Iraq] War, and the current destruction is nothing less and perhaps even more than the destruction during the war, and there is a need for someone who can take charge of the situation.”

In a statement issued Wednesday, former president Khatami also described the country’s situation as critical in the face of the lack of popular trust in the government and the external threats that confront it. He called on his supporters to “understand this historical moment… and stand on Mr. Hashemi’s side.”

But this is only one face of Iran. Rafsanjani’s entry has so disrupted the calculations of his opponents in the conservative camp that they spared no time in attacking him and his record in unprecedented terms.

If, in the 2005 and 2009 elections, it was only Ahmadinejad who spoke against Rafsanjani, now many potential conservative candidates are using anything they can get their hands on to attack him, even suggesting, in some cases, that they are doing so on Khamenei’s behalf or to protect the Leader against the threat posed by Rafsanjani’s candidacy.

One of those potential candidates, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, who used to be a member of the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), went so far as characterising Rafsanjani’s return as “militarism”. He did not explain what the phrase meant precisely, but described Rafsanjani’s conduct since the end of his presidency in 1997 as wholly negative.

“In the debates, Mr. Rafsanjani has to explain his conduct to the people for the past 16 years,” he asserted, apparently referring to the alleged challenges Rafsanjani has posed to Khamenei’s authority.

Gholamali Haddad Adel, another potential candidate who is deemed close to the Leader, implied in an interview with Fars News that Rafsanjani has been engaged in “sedition” and said that his supporters are the same ones who voted for opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mussavi in 2009 and then attempted to undermine the system by protesting against the results of the disputed election.

Even Ali Akbar Velayati, who served as Rafsanjani’s loyal foreign minister during his presidency, accused his former boss of not taking “the position he should have taken” in 2009 and “in those circumstances not remaining on the side of the Leader.”

Given the support and excitement Rafsanjani’s candidacy has generated among various groups, these reactions are hardly unexpected. No one doubts that his entry will impact the race in significant ways. Although public opinion polls taken inside Iran are not considered reliable due to the lack of transparency regarding their methodology, one conducted by Iran Student News Agency (ISNA) suggested that Rafsanjani had moved past Khatami and others in terms of popularity as a candidate by receiving the support of 30.5 percent of over 10,000 respondents.

But while criticism of Rafsanjani is considered fair game, the question of whether Ayatollah Khamenei actually approves of the extent to which conservative candidates are questioning Rafsanjani’s loyalty to the Islamic Republic is a source of great speculation. After all, as the Khamenei-appointed chair of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani remains a high-ranking official. Accusing him of sedition in such a public manner is unusual even for the raucous politics of the Islamic Republic.

This is why some close observers of Iranian politics are not convinced that Khamenei has given the green light for such destructive criticism. At the same time, his silence has opened the path for everyone to attack.

According to a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to IPS on the condition of anonymity, Khamenei’s silence has allowed “those who want to climb the ladder of power to think that the easiest way to move up is to claim absolute obedience to the Leader and then use that as a prop to attack their political opponents, many of whom are long-standing and experienced officials of the Islamic Republic.”

Rafsanjani seems aware of this phenomenon and, in his first statement after registering his candidacy, lamented tactics that have forced “experienced managers of the Islamic Republic to sit at home.” In this statement he identified his campaign slogan as e’tedal Alavi (“moderation” with Alavi being a reference to the political conduct of the first Shi’ite Imam Ali) and thus affirmed his apparent intent to bring many of those managers and officials back into the government.

This call for moderation against the “extremism” that has taken hold of the country also appeals to a number of traditional conservatives with strong ties to the business and clerical communities. Many of them have also been pushed out of power during Ahmadinejad’s tenure.

Indeed, one conservative politician who did not want to be identified questioned the charges being made by his colleagues that are amplified in the media, insisting that Rafsanjani’s return does not pose a serious threat to Iran’s Leader.

“Despite the different views that Mr. Hashemi has, he will maintain respect for the position and standing of the Leader. But temperament-wise he is the only one able to bring back equilibrium to the power system of the Islamic Republic,” the politician said.

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