Iran’s dark horse presidential candidate upsetting leadership

By Ian Black and Saeed Kamali Dehghan  /  The Guardian

Tue, May 21, 2013 - Page 9

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the dark horse heavyweight candidate in Iran’s presidential election, has hit back at hardline pro-regime figures who are alarmed by his growing popularity to insist that he has a “religious and national duty” to run and defiantly accused his detractors of harming the Islamic revolution.

Politicians close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are urging that the veteran cleric be disqualified after he submitted his candidacy in an electrifying move on May 11 just minutes before registration closed.

It had been assumed that Iran’s election would be a closed contest between loyal and officially approved conservatives. However, although much could change before polling day on June 14, there is now growing support for Rafsanjani’s candidacy from followers of former Iranian prime minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh, the Green Movement leader who claims his 2009 election victory was “stolen” by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“You should see who is supporting Rafsanjani and who wants him to be a candidate for the election,” said Gholam Haddad Adel, a pro-Khamenei figure. “The reformists of 2009 are gathering behind Rafsanjani and the truth is that the people who supported Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009 are now supporting Rafsanjani.”

Green activists are setting up Facebook pages to mobilize support for Rafsanjani’s campaign. Mousavi and fellow reformist Mehdi Karroubi remain under house arrest and are banned from political activity.

Mohammed, Karroubi’s son, said Rafsanjani would now win the support of those who voted for change in 2009, but instead got Ahmadinejad for a second term.

“The majority of the Green Movement feel they now have a voice in this election,” he told reporters.

Speaking on Thursday last week to Tehran University students, Rafsanjani struck a confident note.

“I entered the race to perform my religious and national duty given the country’s situation ... and its problems at home and abroad,” the Mehr news Web site reported. “Certain people and movements have resorted to lying and falsification and slurs to discredit others. These people, intentionally or unintentionally, are harming the Islamic revolution.”

Rafsanjani, now 79, is a household name in Iran. He was a confidant of former Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini and a co-architect of the Islamic Republic who has also served as Iranian speaker of parliament.

Known as “the shark” — a reference to his cunning as well as his unusually sparse beard — Rafsanjani effectively ran the bloody eight-year war between Iran and Iraq launched by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1980 when he believed that the post-revolutionary chaos would prevent Iran from mounting a robust defense.

Rafsanjani was famously involved in the 1986 Iran-Contra saga, when weapons were secretly supplied to Tehran by officials from former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration in return for the release of US hostages held by a militant Shiite group in Lebanon.

In 1988, he was credited with having persuaded a reluctant Khomeini to sue for peace with Iraq. It is also believed that he played an important role in the choice of Khamenei as Khomeini’s successor, but the two fell out after Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election.

Over the years he has acquired a reputation for being canny and pragmatic, as well as become very rich from his pistachio-farming family inheritance and later business dealings. In 2003, Forbes estimated Rafsanjani’s personal wealth at more than US$1 billion, an astronomical sum in Iran. His reputation has suffered from widespread allegations of corruption, which he denies.

The US and other Western governments will be watching for any evidence that he might take a softer line on the contentious issue of Iran’s nuclear program — the cause of the harsh sanctions that are exacerbating the country’s structural economic problems.

Until May 11, Rafsanjani had said he would only stand with the permission of Khamenei and he reportedly went ahead after receiving a call from the supreme leader’s office. That, and his position as head of the expediency council, which mediates between Iran’s parliament and the Guardian Council, means that the latter body — charged with vetting the candidates — is unlikely to disqualify him.

In a country where rumor and labyrinthine conspiracy theories are the stuff of political discourse, some believe he may have been set up as a counterweight to Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahamadinejad’s controversial former chief of staff, who is loathed and feared by Khamenei and the conservatives.

“This is a classic divide and rule operation,” said Ali Ansari of St Andrews University. “Khamenei put two people out there who cancel each other out.”

No one has forgotten how, in the wake of the 2009 repression, Rafsanjani spoke out critically for the opposition, urging the establishment, security forces, parliament and protesters all to act within the law.

Rafsanjani has been isolated for the past four years and his children have fallen foul of the regime. In September last year, his son, Mehdi Hashemi, was detained after returning from self-imposed exile in the UK. He is now out of prison, but being tried. Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh, an activist and former MP, was sentenced to six months in prison after being found guilty of “spreading propaganda against the regime.”

Immediately after he registered, petitions began circulating signed by conservatives who attacked him as linked to “sedition.” Kayhan and other hardline media outlets are calling for his disqualification on grounds of age.

In a recent meeting with journalists and students, Rafsanjani was quoted as saying: “The system belongs to the people. It shouldn’t be that some group does whatever it wants and doesn’t allow ordinary people to object. It is they who own the state. God gave supremacy over the state only to the 12 holy [Shiite] imams and after them anyone who becomes responsible should be elected by the people. No dictatorship would survive.”