New York Times: It is an election as contradictory as Iran itself: the front-runner is a pillar of the Islamic Revolution now cast as the man who can curb the excesses of hard-line clerics and improve relations with the country’s bogeyman, the United States.
Indeed, this politician, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and self-styled free-marketer, cloaks himself in the trappings of a reformist as carefully as he wears his tailored
blue-gray clerical robes. New York Times
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
TEHRAN – It is an election as contradictory as Iran itself: the front-runner is a pillar of the Islamic Revolution now cast as the man who can curb the excesses of hard-line clerics and improve relations with the country’s bogeyman, the United States.
Indeed, this politician, Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and self-styled free-marketer, cloaks himself in the trappings of a reformist as carefully as he wears his tailored blue-gray clerical robes.
But in an interview, one of a series he is giving to promote his candidacy, Mr. Rafsanjani sounds less than conciliatory. He says the United States is not a democracy, and demands that it make the first concession before relations improve. Like all senior officials, he steadfastly defends Iran’s right to develop nuclear technology.
“There is only a veneer of democracy in the United States, and we have a real democracy,” he said, brushing aside suggestions that Iran’s election rules unfairly favor the hard-liners who control much of the government. “Election laws are so complicated in your country that people have no choice but to vote for one of the candidates who are with one of the two parties.”
Mr. Rafsanjani, 70, may best embody the absurdities of the election, on June 17, even if defending Iran by attacking the United States is a favorite tactic of any official dodging questions about domestic issues.
Political and social change is so popular that all candidates adopt the vocabulary and style of reform; the arch-conservative mayor of Tehran even showed up to register as a candidate in a remarkable, highly fashionable pink shirt. Yet none of the eight candidates allowed to run want to alter what many here see as their central problem: all power rests in the hands of an unaccountable, supreme religious leader who can overrule elected officials at whim.
Hence Iranians are expected to avoid the polls with the same zeal with which they flocked to them in the past two elections, when they arrived full of hope that their votes would produce real change.
This is particularly true given that the Guardians Council, an unelected watchdog group, first eliminated, then reinstated the main reformist candidate only after the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appealed to the council to give voters a choice.
The reinstatement of this reformist, Mustafa Moin, and of another independent candidate signaled that the fate of any candidate remained in the hands of the ayatollah.
Aside from Mr. Rafsanjani, the remaining candidates hoping to succeed President Mohammed Khatami include one moderate cleric and four former senior officers in the Revolutionary Guards, whose loyalty to the supreme leader is unquestionable.
In this lineup, Mr. Rafsanjani is viewed as a compromise figure – the least distasteful conservative to the liberals and the most liberal among the conservatives.
At times he might be described as the most hated man in Iran – blamed for ills ranging from corruption to the inability of reformers to push through even mild political change. Then again, many Iranians wonder if his religious and revolutionary credentials might lend him sufficient influence to confront the supreme leader, a friend and rival.
“They would like to see him as president, but they don’t want to vote for him,” said Nasser Hadian, a political scientist.
One rival candidate, Mehdi Karoubi, a centrist cleric and former speaker of Parliament, laid out Mr. Rafsanjani’s past democratic failings in a widely circulated letter. He attacked Mr. Rafsanjani for not defending candidates rejected by the Guardians Council in previous elections, for allowing the Intelligence Ministry to dabble in the economy, and indirectly for the deaths of dissident intellectuals during his presidency from 1989 to 1997, killings later traced to intelligence agents.
Aides to Mr. Rafsanjani concede that their candidate sometimes lost confrontations with the conservatives, but suggest this time will be different because he wants to polish his legacy. His political stock had fallen so low by 2000 that he failed to win a Parliament seat.
“Mr. Rafsanjani believes that we have to provide people with a better life, better education, more welfare, better urban life, and eventually these changes will lead to a bigger change, breaking the obstacle of tradition and the clergy,” said Mohammad Atrianfar, a Rafsanjani adviser and editor in chief of the daily Shargh. “Mr. Khatami thought he could do it more directly and that’s why he somehow failed. The direct approach in Iran isn’t a very good approach because somehow the government rejects this approach by disqualifying candidates, weakening the Parliament and supervising the press.”
The mere fact that Mr. Rafsanjani gave an interview to The New York Times – his first – and has spoken to a few other foreign news organizations is a sign that he seeks to convince voters that his reach stretches far beyond Iran.
The reformists’ main props during the past eight years were the crushing election victories that swept Mr. Khatami to power in 1997 and 2001. Though he loosened the social climate, supporters were disappointed by constant assaults on civil liberties, like the shuttering of some 100 newspapers. Ayatollah Khamenei, who already controls the military, the judiciary and the state-run television and radio, is suspected of seeking to control the presidency next, after effectively defanging Parliament last year by eliminating all reformist candidates.
A combination of apathy and anger appears particularly rampant among the 66 percent of Iran’s 70 million people who are under 30. A huge share of the 48 million eligible voters are expected to deny the government its traditional attempt to use a high turnout to argue that all Iranians support clerical rule.
The Interior Ministry has been issuing veiled threats that any formal boycott attempt would be considered a crime, so Iranians avoid the word.
“People are tired of lending a democratic face to this regime,” said Abdullah Momeni, a student leader. “They don’t think the regime will offer any kind of fundamental change to bring democracy.”
Yet Mr. Rafsanjani’s camp thinks it can appeal to this constituency. Mr. Atrianfar reels off numbers like any ward boss. He said about two-thirds of Iranians wanted some manner of reform, with almost half of them seeking complete constitutional change. Only 10 percent like the status quo.
The 10 percent, which others describe as up to seven million hard-core conservative voters, are likely to support Mr. Rafsanjani, not least because he is the main cleric left in the race. Mr. Atrianfar suggests that Mr. Rafsanjani can sway some voters in other reformist camps.
In his hour-long interview on Monday evening, held in a stunning former royal palace of pale green marble in downtown Tehran, Mr. Rafsanjani did not go so far as to suggest re-establishing ties with Washington. But after detailing a long list of domestic and regional ills caused by the United States, he ventured that it was time to retire the past.
“It is not a priority for us, but the current state is not reasonable either,” he said, repeating the demand he made as president that the first step should be the release of some $11 billion in Iranian assets frozen since the American Embassy in Tehran was seized for 444 days right after the revolution.
Mr. Rafsanjani is a staunch supporter of Iran’s developing its nuclear capacity for electric power, medical applications and other uses, but says he opposes nuclear weapons.
That contrasts with a sermon at a Friday Prayer in 2001, however, in which he suggested that just one nuclear bomb could solve the problem of Israel’s threatening the region with its own nuclear arsenal.
On social issues, considered a key among the mass of young voters, he says the government should get out of people’s private lives. “Even Islam says one should not interfere in the private lives of people,” he said.
There is one cornerstone that he would not change: the enforcement of the hijab, or head-covering, for all women. Tehran has been rife with rumors that Mr. Rafsanjani, who holds the religious rank of hojatolislam, one step below ayatollah, would find a way to make hijabs voluntary.
“We are Muslims and we enforce Islamic law, which is also in our Constitution,” he said.
In terms of the economy, Mr. Rafsanjani said he would like to reduce greatly the 44 percent of the economy in public hands. (Others put the government’s share as high as 85 percent.) Recent decisions to overturn contracts signed with Turkish companies to improve Iran’s overburdened cellphone network and run its new international airport were a mistake, he said.
Mr. Rafsanjani’s critics – and they are legion – accuse him of repeating old themes and note his difficulties in challenging the radicals when president. He proved unable to unify the currency exchange rate, for example, and lost several battles with the conservatives over who would serve in his cabinet.
Among voters, discussions after Friday Prayer in Isfahan, south of Tehran, produced varied results.
A retired elementary school teacher said Mr. Rafsanjani was the only candidate who could strengthen the economy, while a young clerical student said eight years was enough and the country needed a younger man.
Reza Jaedi, 24, was slouching through Isfahan’s main square in a bright yellow shirt, the colorful clothing and his long hair both favorite forms of silent protest.
“I’m not going to vote for anyone because it’s just a show,” he said. “This one comes and this one goes and nothing changes.”