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Dispatch | President Rafsanjani?

by AVINAR RAJABI

09 Oct 2012 14:10Comments

The former chief executive appears to be maneuvering for a potential comeback.

Ahmadinejad-Rafsanjani-1.jpg

[ news analysis ] What does it signal if two children of a politician -- an old, severely embattled politician -- are arrested and jailed for acting against state interests? If the politician is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the state is the Islamic Republic of Iran, it could signal his return to popular politics.

This peculiarity is not unfathomable. It is a function, in part, of the well-known disenchantment of the Iranian populace with the ruling classes. For the last 16 years, every major presidential candidate in Iran has defined his campaign in partial opposition to the central power, though each has defined that power differently. Mohammad Khatami defined it as the regime's conservative old guard. Mir Hossein Mousavi defined it as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad defined it as Rafsanjani.

By the same token, being reprimanded by the Iranian judiciary, which operates under the supervision of the Supreme Leader, does not hurt one's popularity. So two weeks ago, when Faezeh, Rafsanjani's daughter, was sent to Evin Prison for a six-month sentence for "propaganda against the ruling system" and Mehdi, his son, returned from three years in England to face charges of political and financial corruption, there were immediate speculations in Iranian media that Rafsanjani was preparing a new move.

Those speculations became stronger last week when Arman, a reformist newspaper, published a two-paragraph report on its front page that hints at the possibility of Rafsanjani entering the presidential race in 2013.

The substance of the report is reminiscent of the coquetry American politicians perform prior to declaring their intentions for presidential elections. It is indirect, vague, and at the same time bold enough to engender further speculation. "As some sources indicate," says the Arman report, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, the former chairman of parliament, has recently met with Rafsanjani. "I am in touch with revolutionary forces, men of the bazaar, and high clerics," Nategh Nouri has purportedly said to Rafsanjani. "They express their concern regarding the recent attacks on your person. Enter the [political] scene openly, and we will be behind you."

The report does not quote Rafsanjani's reply directly. "It has been heard," it says, that Rafsanjani replied by saying he will "be unflinchingly present at the scene" of the next election.

What are we to make of this declaration?

Rafsanjani, who during his eight-year tenure as president wielded a political power that overshadowed Khamenei's, has for the last three years faced a rapid erosion of his status. He has lost his position as leader of Friday Prayers in Tehran, as chairman of the board of Azad University, and as chairman of the Assembly of Experts. Over the last few months, however, the attacks on him have subsided. Ahmadinejad, who made a career of setting up Rafsanjani as an effigy of state corruption and striking matches, extended a conciliatory hand toward him. The state media showed him side by side with Khamenei during an important ceremony. And he has been speaking in public about the need for a "government of national unity" to bring together the disjointed and competing factions of the regime.

In fact, if anyone is surprised by Arman's report, it is not the hardliners. They have been warning for almost a year that "turncoat reformers and other defunct coalitions" have been hatching a plot to use Rafsanjani to undermine the forces close to the Supreme Leader. Eight months ago, a conservative paper pointed out that within a month, the nine leading reformist newspapers had featured Rafsanjani on their front pages a total of 33 times -- a sure sign that something was brewing.

When the report of the meeting with Nategh Nouri appeared, the hardline Raja News immediately declared to its readers that Arman is nothing more than the unofficial mouthpiece of Rafsanjani's family, who are trying to promote him as the only one who can solve Iran's problems.

A month ago, in fact, Arman put out a special issue on just that topic: why Rafsanjani is the only way forward ("even his critics admit so," read one article). It presented a three-tier argument. First, Rafsanjani is a moderate who knows when to be quiet and when to use a strong hand. In other words, he is not an outspoken reformer as was Khatami; he can play nice with Khamenei's camp without being their lickspittle. Second, he has always believed in a multiparty system and so welcomes all camps to take part in the political process. This argument, of course, rests more on Rafsanjani's rhetoric than on his actions during his presidency. The third argument is that no one in the regime has ever exposed himself to popular vote as often as has Rafsanjani, no one has proven his belief in a popular mandate as much as he has. The same populace, we should remember, refused to vote him into parliament in 1999 and let him be defeated by Ahmadinejad in 2005.

There is another argument for Rafsanjani, which Arman sidestepped but is on everyone's mind: he might be able to make peace with the West. It's not just that in popular legend (and in Iran-Contra reports) he appears as the behind-the-scenes negotiator with the United States; and it's not just that he has for years hinted at the need for reconciliation with the superpower; it's also that he might just have the clout to be taken seriously when he talks about renegotiating the nuclear situation. That is the type of clout Ahmadinejad, for example, now lacks: the West no longer believes that the president represents the major forces in the Iranian regime.

In light of these arguments, the role of Nategh Nouri as the catalyzer in Rafsanjani's new move becomes slightly more transparent. "Slightly," because Nategh Nouri is a microcosm of the tangled web of hostilities and alliances that is the Islamic Republic. He might be most familiar as Khamenei's man in the 1997 presidential election. After Khatami wiped him out, the Supreme Leader assigned him to a key advisory position. In other words, he is a conservative close to Khamenei's inner circle. And yet, in the 2009 presidential campaign, Nategh Nouri supported the reformist Mousavi. An incensed Ahmadinejad accused Nategh Nouri's son, along with Rafsanjani's children, of being at the apex of economic corruption in the country. To make matters even more complex, it was Mehdi Karroubi -- another reformist candidate -- who came to Nategh Nouri's defense. During a presidential debate, Karroubi revealed that when Ahmadinejad tried to become Tehran's mayor, the Ministry of Intelligence refused to approve his bid and relented only when Nategh Nouri personally called the minister and vouched for Ahmadinejad. The Ministry did not refute the story.

In other words, Nategh Nouri appears as a sort of everyman: a conservative, a reformist, a Rafsanjani ally, and a man still quite close to Khamenei.

Which brings us to the key point: Rafsanjani cannot run for anything without Khamenei's permission. It is unwise to try and predict the Supreme Leader's position just yet. Only recently he stated that he would prefer to eliminate the position of president altogether. To allow Rafsanjani to rise to that position would mean accepting a serious rival for his nearly absolute power. To imagine that he is now ready to accept such a choice would mean that the developments of the past three years (the emergence of the Green Movement, the intensification of sanctions, the fall of the rial) have seriously unsettled him. It is precisely this type of speculation that it is unwise to engage in.

For now, what we can say for certain is that we are witnessing yet another master move by a master politician.

by the same author | A New Turn for Rafsanjani and His Family | 'Paternal House': A Challenge to the Government

Avinar Rajabi is a pen name for a Tehran Bureau correspondent.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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