Iran: Rafsanjani's Second Shot At Reform

At Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidential campaign headquarters in Tehran, press agent Siavash Daryabar shows off a vast wall chart of Iran's regions with hundreds of circles, each indicating a local campaign operation. There's plenty of support for Rafsanjani, but in Iran's increasingly uninhibited political environment, there's also plenty of opposition. For the past few weeks, Daryabar has been churning out rebuttals to opposition attacks on Rafsanjani for everything from using his influence to enrich himself to being photographed with inappropriately dressed women. "I have never seen such smears," says the campaign veteran.

Amazingly, Rafsanjani, who served as President from 1989 to 1997, when he was a faithful partner of the conservative mullahs, is showing enough flexibility to take the attacks in stride and even bolster his candidacy. The 70-year-old cleric broke new ground in a televised spot on June 11 in which he genially submitted himself to a grilling from young Iranians.

Runoff Bound

Because of his willingness to engage young voters, and because most Iranians view him as a pragmatic, can-do politician, Rafsanjani, a onetime aide to the late Ayatollah Khomeini, leads in the polls. If he wins, Iraq, the world's No. 4 oil exporter, can expect a serious attempt at economic reform and maybe even rapprochement with the U.S. So far, though, Rafsanjani hasn't been garnering the majority required for a first-round win in mid-June. The other top vote-getters are likely to be Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a former national police chief backed by some conservatives, and Mustafa Moin, a former Education Minister and the hope of many backers of the current President, Mohammed Khatami. If no one gains a majority, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff a week later.

The assumption is that Rafsanjani will probably win in a runoff. If so, the victory will vindicate his campaign theme -- that only he has the experience and gravitas to cool down tense relations with the U.S. and set Iran on a path to solid economic growth.

Rafsanjani is appealing to Iranians' concerns that their country is falling behind in an increasingly globalized world. Iran's isolation now deprives the vital oil and gas industry of American investment and technology. Iran also risks increasing political isolation thanks to international opposition to its nuclear program and criticism of its human rights record.

Adding to such worries, Iran's growth dropped below 5% for the last fiscal year, ending in March, as foreign and domestic investors waited for election results before committing more capital to the economy. While 5% growth isn't bad for most countries, it is not enough to put a dent in Iran's unemployment rate of 14% or higher. The business community hopes that Rafsanjani will repeat the achievements of his first term, when he made the first moves to energize the economy. "The next President has to be a leader who can create jobs and push everything forward," says Shahin Shayan Arani, president of Ezam Investment Co.

As President, Rafsanjani would likely try to take power back from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has assumed an increasingly executive role. That might lead to tensions, but as one with well-burnished revolutionary credentials, Rafsanjani would have a far better chance than the other candidates at making an impact in areas such as foreign relations, where Khatami has lost control. Some observers even think Rafsanjani will try to push clerics out of most government posts.

"We Should Accept"

In economic matters, Rafsanjani would probably try to attract Western investment and cut the government's dominant role in the economy through privatization. In his June 11 broadcast he said the way to prevent youths from being exploited by rapacious employers was to "bring in the private sector so that companies will be coming after you with job offers."

Rafsanjani also displays his pragmatism when discussing the U.S. He wouldn't have any ideological qualms about cutting a deal with Washington, a goal backed by wide swaths of Iranian society. "If they come forward and show goodwill, we should accept," he said in his campaign broadcast. The shape of such a deal is not yet clear, but Rafsanjani would want an end to U.S. sanctions and military threats, while the U.S. would want verifiable safeguards on Iran's nuclear program and good behavior by Iran in Iraq. Despite the favorable signals, reaching an agreement could prove agonizingly difficult.

At the same time, Rafsanjani would split the difference between the liberal reformers and hard-liners on issues such as press and political freedom. Now a moderate conservative, he can be expected to be more tolerant of criticism in the media than the hard-liners, who have closed reformist newspapers by the dozen.

Rafsanjani knows that reshaping the regime he did so much to create is bound to be a grueling and often thankless task. But he is apparently determined to take one last shot at burnishing his legacy.

By Stanley Reed, with Babak Pirouz, in Tehran

Edited by Christopher Power

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