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Iran: Former President Rafsanjani Likely To Run In Presidential Election

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani (in file photo) suggested he will be a reluctant candidate Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Iran's influential former president, has given his clearest indication yet that he will run as a candidate in June's presidential election. The 70-year-old pragmatic conservative cleric is considered by many analysts as a leading candidate to succeed President Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani, who heads the country’s powerful Expediency Council, has been a key figure in Iranian politics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Prague, 26 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Former President Hashemi-Rafsanjani said yesterday that he would enter Iran’s future presidential race with reluctance.

In comments published by Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said: "The question of the presidency has been on my mind. Even though I prefer that someone else take up this responsibility, I think I will have to swallow this bitter medicine."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani currently chairs the powerful Expediency Council, the main body of arbitration between the parliament and the Guardians Council. But he has held several other top positions in the Islamic Republic since its establishment 25 years ago.

In recent months, Hashemi-Rafsanjani has hinted about his intention to run in the 17 June presidential election. But while other candidates have already started campaigning, Hashemi-Rafsanjani has made no formal declaration. He has said several times that he would prefer someone younger to contest the elections.

However, recent opinion polls show that Hashemi-Rafsanjani would be a leading candidate.

Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, said many see Hashemi-Rafsanjani as the only leader who could bring some political balance inside the country and improve ties with the West.

"When you compare other candidates with Mr. Hashemi-Rafsanjani, you see regarding executive matters, political authority, and international status that his position is not comparable," Zibakalam said. "International power knows that if they reach an agreement with Rafsanjani, it is unlikely that he would not be able to carry it out. We don’t have this in regard to any of the other candidates."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani’s powerful status has deep roots. He was a key member of Iran’s Revolutionary Council and the first speaker of parliament. In the last year of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, he was appointed as acting commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Hashemi-Rafsanjani's two-term presidency, from 1989 to 1997, was marked by some economic and social liberalization and by a postwar economic boom. But also during his tenure, several opposition leaders and dissidents were murdered in Iran and abroad.
"If he became president, he would be a weak president because the opinion polls show that he would gain only about 22 percent of the vote." - Sadi

Akbar Ganji, a prominent jailed journalist, has said that Hashemi-Rafsanjani should be held accountable for political killings that took place under his administration. Ganji has spent the last five years in prison for his critical articles and his investigations into the serial killings of intellectuals in late 1998.

Observers say there are several reasons for Hashemi-Rafsanjani's hesitation to announce his candidacy. Some point to his defeat in the 2000 parliamentary elections. Others say Hashemi-Rafsanjani has waited for his candidature to get the green light from Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Professor Zibakalam of Tehran University said that in the face of growing domestic problems, the nuclear crisis and U.S. threats against Iran, Rafsanjani may feel he has no choice but to enter the presidential race.

"He would definitely prefer another political figure, or another person to come and [solve the current problems]. But as we move forward, we see that the conservative candidates do not have the power and ability [to win] and if the reformist candidates gain votes, they will not be able to solve the problems, either. Their power will not be in any case more than Mr. Khatami’s power -- [and] he could not in the last eight years achieve many of his goals. And similarly, [reformist candidates] Mr. Moein and Mr. Karrubi will not be able to do more than Khatami," Zibakalam said.

But Ghassem Shoaleh Sadi, a political analyst and a former parliamentarian, disagrees with that analysis. "If he became president, he would be a weak president because the opinion polls show that he would gain only about 22 percent of the vote," Sadi said. "Therefore, he will not have strong popular support and he will not be able to cooperate with the current parliament, which is dominated by ultra conservatives who do not support him."

Reacting to reports about Rafsanjani’s possible candidacy, U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said his government does not have concerns about who will be Iran's president, only about what policies the new leader would follow.

In a February interview with "USA Today," Rafsanjani said that as president he indicated his willingness to engage the United States in dialogue "if they show goodwill." He added that he remains of the same opinion.

Iran’s presidential elections are only two months away but so far observers say it has generated little interest among a deeply apathetic public. The Interior Ministry recently announced that between 42 and 51 percent of eligible voters intend to vote on 17 June. During the last presidential elections, more than 63 percent of eligible voters turned out.

(Radio Farda correspondent Fereydun Zarnegar contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.