Monday, 20 May 2013

Iran – new president, new direction?

On 11 May 2013, only minutes before the deadline, a surprise candidate registered himself to stand in the Iranian presidential elections due to be held on 14 June. The current incumbent – the controversial Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – has served his statutory two terms, although whether he was in fact entitled to his second period in office remains a matter of intense speculation both inside and outside Iran.

Electoral fraud on a massive scale was alleged in the 2009 presidential ballot – and massive it must have been if it occurred, since Ahmadinejad’s share of the vote was announced as 63 per cent, against the 37 per cent won by his main rival. On the day of the disputed election, a woman prominent in the Iranian establishment, Efrat Marashi, called on the public to take to the streets if the vote was rigged. And indeed, on the day of Ahmadinejad’s inauguration, there were widespread street demonstrations. Hundreds of riot police met opposition protesters outside parliament and elsewhere in Tehran. Responding to the allegations of vote-rigging, the US, the UK , France and Germany refrained from sending the re-elected president the usual letters of congratulation.

The street protests continued well beyond inauguration day, and on Friday, 17 July 2009 some 1.5 million worshippers attended a particular Friday Prayer meeting. In the subsequent sermon, the speaker called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press.

The speaker that Friday was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who had served as Iranian president from 1989 until 1997. And it is Rafsanjani who has now declared himself a candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections.

Rafsanjani and his wife – for that is who Efrat Marashi is – have proved themselves a thorn in the side of the ruling Iranian élite in general, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in particular. But Rafsanjani is too powerful, and with too great a popular following, to be entirely crushed. Instead the government has taken to harrying him. Senior members of his Construction Party, including Hossein Marashi, Mrs Rafsanjani's cousin, were detained after the election. His daughter was arrested during the street protests and later sentenced to six months in jail on charges of spreading propaganda against the Islamic Republic. His official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for refusing to remove the transcript of his famous Friday Sermon.

Now the Iranian constitution requires a new president to be elected, and Rafsanjani’s entry into the contest radically alters what was previously seen as a contest between rival conservative groups. Not that Rafsanjani currently is more than a relative moderate – currently, because in his time he has veered sharply from side to side across Iran’s political spectrum; and relatively moderate because, although he now favours a domestic free market, privatization of state-owned industries, and a moderate position internationally, he is still sought by the Argentinian government for ordering the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed and hundreds injured; while in 1997, during the trial in Germany into an assassination of Iranian opposition activists in Berlin’s Mykono restaurant, it was declared that Rafsanjani (then president of Iran) along with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and others had authorised the operation. Rafsanjani, moreover, still supports Iran’s nuclear programme – although he has indicated that he would be much more flexible than Ahmadinejad in negotiating with the UN, the US and the West about its future.

Rafsanjani’s chances of heading the poll depend on a variety of uncertain factors. His age might possibly count against him – he is 78 – but he is in good health. Given his status in Iranian society, the fact that more than 400 other candidates have thrown their hats into the ring may not be as daunting as at first glance. Rafsanjani stands head and shoulders above all of them. It is, perhaps, significant that Rafsanjani did say some time ago that, in a desire to avoid conflict and dispute, he would not enter the field without the consent of Ayatollah Khamenei. It is, therefore, possible that a last minute agreement with the Supreme Leader may have opened the way for his registration.

If however he did not come to such an agreement before the poll, the vast field of candidates does give the Supreme Leader and his immediate supporters in the higher echelons of government the opportunity to throw their weight behind some other candidate – as they did for Ahmadinejad, prior to his second ballot success. For example, there is Saeed Jalili, a hardline conservative who is seen as close to Khamenei. Jalili has been leading Iran’s team in its so-far fruitless negotiations with world powers about curtailing its nuclear programme.

Professor Shaul Bakhash is a leading expert in Iranian studies at George Mason University in Virginia. "Rafsanjani is above all a pragmatist,” says Bakhash, “a problem solver. He looks for ways to get things done. As president, if Khamenei allows him, I think he would move quickly to hold direct negotiations with the US, zero in on getting sanctions lifted, considerably moderate Iran's foreign policy rhetoric and take steps to create conditions for foreign investment.”

An intriguing prospect. The election and its outcome are only a few weeks away. We shall learn soon enough whether Iran is to be set on a new path – and whether it will be Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who leads the way.

[21 May 2013 - Iran's electoral watchdog announces it has banned Hashemi Rafsanjani from participating in the presidential election.  The grounds given are his "advanced age".] 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line magazine, 19 May 2013:

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