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In the past month, Expediency Council Chairman and former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has granted a number of interviews to Iranian media and another to a U.S. newspaper. As he is one of the most powerful and influential individuals in Iran, his remarks on topics such as Iran-U.S. relations and the nuclear issue are always important.
His remarks are even more noteworthy now, as observers wonder whether Hashemi-Rafsanjani plans to run in the June presidential election.
They also provide an interesting study in contrast between comments intended for the Western and those crafted for the Iranian media.
In a 9 February interview with state radio, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that Western, and especially Washington's, comments about Iran have become more aggressive recently. He went on to dismiss this development, saying it represents "a need for a tangible enemy and [to] introduce that enemy to their nations."
Relations With Washington
Hashemi-Rafsanjani said on 6 February in an exclusive interview with "USA Today" that Tehran is unconcerned over Washington's tough recent statements about Iran. He said the resumption of Iranian-U.S. dialogue should be preceded by an American goodwill gesture, such as the unfreezing of Iranian assets that he estimated to be about $8 billion plus interest. He said he is one of the people who can restore relations between the two countries and indicated that there is no need for continued difficulties. "The mere fact that I am sitting here talking to you is an indication that we have no differences with the American people. This would not happen with an Israeli journalist. We want good relations with the American people. There has to be a dialogue between the governments, but what can one do when your government has always wronged us?"
In a 30 January interview with the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Hashemi-Rafsanjani's tone was more belligerent. "The Americans continue their hostility against us. They have always thought about bringing us to our knees in some way, but they have always failed." He predicted that the United States will not act against Iran, but if it does, "we can do great things.... They are wounded and they might engage in foolish actions. But ultimately they will be defeated." Hashemi-Rafsanjani said there is nothing new in what Washington is saying, "but I evaluate their policy of hostility to be serious."
Hashemi-Rafsanjani told state radio on 9 February that Iran's willingness to negotiate with Europe about the nuclear issue is a "positive step." "This was a collective step by the system and we all agreed and remain in agreement over the issue," he explained. He also signaled unhappiness with the Europeans, however, saying that they are "not practicing what they said before." He warned that killing time will not be effective.
Hashemi-Rafsanjani sounded a similar note in his interview with "USA Today." "I'm not satisfied with the progress of the work, but I am happy that the talks are going on," he said, adding, "It might have a negative effect if the United States joins."
In his 30 January interview, Hashemi-Rafsanjani expressed confidence that the nuclear issue will be resolved in Iran's favor. He said Iran has the technology to create its own nuclear fuel. Intensified international oversight, he said, is not a problem. "Everything is transparent, and nothing will happen to us," he added. Hashemi-Rafsanjani attributed international concern about the nuclear issue to a continuous desire to humiliate Iran. "We must try to protect our dignity," he said. He went on to say that Iran possesses nuclear technology that it can put into action quickly.
In another interview, which appeared in the 17 January issue of "Sharq" newspaper, Hashemi-Rafsanjani stressed the importance of diplomatic engagement with the West. He said he advocates "ideological realism" and acknowledged that "observing Islam leads to some limitations." Hashemi-Rafsanjani also acknowledged the value of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's "Dialogue of Civilizations," saying, "Intellectual interaction is an important issue in the life of human beings." He added, "It can be peaceful and solve problems."
On these major foreign policy issues, Hashemi-Rafsanjani sounded a fairly similar tone in all interviews. His interview with "USA Today" focused more on Iranian-U.S. relations, but that was likely a reflection of the interviewer's interests. He was fairly consistent throughout the interviews, although the terminology used with Iranian media was arguably more aggressive. That could have as much to do with the translators as it does with Hashemi-Rafsanjani's intentions, however.
The daily "Aftab-i Yazd" on 9 February criticized Hashemi-Rafsanjani's statement about the possibility of renewing relations with the United States. Is there any point in negotiating with the government that he described as bird-brained, the daily asked. Moreover, it continued, would it not have been easier to resolve differences between the two countries when Hashemi-Rafsanjani was president (1989-97)?
A commentary in the 9 February "Etemad" said using the media to express foreign policy opportunities can have positive results. First, this can eliminate the American public's "Iranian taboo" and demonstrate Tehran's openness, the paper argued. Such a dialogue, it added, shows that a new understanding between the two countries is possible.
Many people wonder whether Hashemi-Rafsanjani intends to be a candidate in Iran's next presidential election, which is scheduled to take place on 17 June.
Five individuals have announced that they want to be the main conservative candidate -- Tehran Mayor Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad; Ali Larijani, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai; Tehran parliamentary representative Ahmad Tavakoli; and another adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati.
Two individuals have said they would like to be the reformist wing's candidate -- former parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi and former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin. A third person, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hassan Rohani, has been touted as a possible candidate, but he said he will not decide until the end of the Iranian year (20 March).
Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in the 6 January "USA Today" that he has not decided on his candidacy yet and that he would prefer that someone else be the people's preferred candidate. If no other candidate emerges, he said, "I might announce [my candidacy], but we have two or three more months."
He made similar points in the 30 January ISNA interview. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said his candidacy depends on a popular and capable manager coming forward. "Personal capability and support with the vote of the people must exist together," he told the agency. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said his general inclination is against being a candidate because he does not want people to think "the regime is dependent on only a few people." He conceded that it is too early to make his decision and that for this reason he has not thought seriously about a program for running the country. Asked which candidate he would support if he does not run, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said he has not yet made a decision.
The 'Sick' Economy
Economic affairs were discussed in three of the interviews. Asked by "USA Today" about "the biggest problem facing Iran now," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said there are no major problems. He conceded that unemployment and inflation are "chronic conditions" that must be resolved. He acknowledged the role of subsidies in reducing the cost of living.
Hashemi-Rafsanjani was perhaps more forthcoming about this issue in the ISNA interview. Asked what he would do if elected president, he said, "We must do something for the segment under the poverty line to have a dignified life." He added that such a goal "can be achieved by creating a complete social security and creating employment in the country, without harming economic prosperity."
Hashemi-Rafsanjani bristled when asked if curing Iran's "sick economy" is the only reason for relations with industrial states, "Sharq" reported on 17 January. He said he does not accept that expression, and the problems that existed when he was president were minor. "Please say 'economic difficulties' instead of sick economy," he said. He agreed that the economy's dependence on oil is problematic, but added that "the problem goes away" if there is a good 10-year plan incorporating judicious taxation and if the people and the country's officials are determined.
There was no great difference in Hashemi-Rafsanjani's interviews on most domestic issues, and he was fairly consistent regardless of the interviewer's nationality. Iran suffers from double-digit unemployment and inflation, and he tried to understate the extent of economic problems in his "USA Today" interview. Such an approach could reflect a desire to make the country look good for a predominantly foreign audience.