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Iran: Alarmed Politicians Urge Voters To Choose Hashemi-Rafsanjani

Ahmadinejad (pictured) is considered more hard-line than Rafsanjani In the second round of Iran's presidential election on 24 June, voters must choose between the very right-wing Mahmud Ahmadinejad --> and the more cautious former President Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, --> who heads the Expediency Council, a key arbitrating body.

Many Iranians have responded by forming a "national movement" to prevent the election of Ahmadinejad, who is being presented as a reactionary, while Rafsanjani is depicted as the last-ditch defender of minimal rights and liberties. The popularity that eluded Rafsanjani but was present in the eight-year presidency of Mohammad Khatami -- especially evident when Rafsanjani failed to win a seat in the 2001 parliamentary elections -- has suddenly been thrust upon him.

Rafsanjani's supporters include Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri, a prominent supporter of Khatami's reforms and popular former preacher in the central Isfahan Province. He stated his support on 20 June, IRNA reported. Seyyed Hadi Khamenei, a left-wing cleric and brother of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged voters on 20 June to hand Rafsanjani "the sapling of political and social liberties and civil rights," ISNA reported. Ahmad Shirzad of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front told Mehr agency on 20 June that "we think Mr. Hashemi will cause us fewer problems than the other candidate." Three pro-reform organizations -- the Democracy Party the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party, and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization -- have stated their support for Rafsanjani.
Rafsanjani is already a reputed friend of economic liberalization. Time will tell if he has also become a friend of political liberties.

Candidates who lost in the first round have also reportedly moved to Rafsanjani's side. They include Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, who initially criticized Rafsanjani's candidacy and blamed him for many of Iran's existing problems, but also Ali Larijani, who is often described as "close" to the supreme leader. Reformist candidate Mustafa Moin said on 21 June that he would vote for Rafsanjani, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day.

Rafsanjani has even managed to wrench the support of dissidents who have known prison and harassment in past years. Emadedin Baqi, a writer jailed for articles he wrote about the murder of dissidents in the 1990s -- during and shortly after the Rafsanjani presidencies -- said on 20 June that as a "human rights activist, I am sounding the alarm bell," ISNA reported the same day. "Reformers and some of the men of reason in the right-wing faction must unite so the candidate opposed to Hashemi is not elected," he said. Another dissident, Ezzatollah Sahabi, said on 20 June that "all people and groups must support" Rafsanjani, IRNA reported that day, "even those who boycotted the polls." The list of supporters goes on: former parliament members, moderate conservatives, representatives of the Chaldean and Assyrian Christian minorities, prominent clerics.

And Rafsanjani, seemingly elated, has risen to these calls and the perceived urgency of a victory. Usually noncommittal on controversial issues, he deplored in a 20 June statement the "shocking instances of abuse [against candidates] and unjust, organized interventions" on polling day, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 21 June. The complaints of "my brother" Karrubi must be addressed, Rafsanjani said. More vigorously, he told students from Tehran University on 21 June that he would use "all means" to prevent the Guardians Council from trying to change votes in the next round. "If the system tries to act above the law, it will face problems," he said, IRNA reported that day. Students clapped and whistled in response, it was reported, as they might have done before with Khatami. He said the present conditions require "an open atmosphere where people are not afraid to state their mind," while his 20 June statement mentioned "safeguarding political and social liberties, and attention to women's rights," as items on his presidential agenda.

Rafsanjani echoed Khatami's calls for lawfulness, speaking to Tehran students on 21 June, and said all people in Iran, including students and journalists, must respect the law. The law, he added, "may not be good, and what is legal today may become a better law, but...the way is to act lawfully," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. He cautioned students that "if anyone breaks the law, they cannot expect" not to be prosecuted, whether the offenses are "political or not," the daily added.

Rafsanjani promised not to let "parallel bodies" interfere in state security work, and approved of the "present methods" of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which the Khatami government said has been purged of lawless agents who were accused of killing dissident Iranians in the 1990s. "I will not let them interfere in the intelligence ministry's work," he said. The reforms he said he initiated and that Khatami pursued, "must move forward and nobody wishes to oppose that."

Rafsanjani appeared to reach the limits of his democratic potential when he said he would oppose unjust imprisonments, and students shouted out the name of Akbar Ganji, a dissident jailed for critical writings not unrelated to Rafsanjani's political past. Ganji, he said, "is also an instance that must be examined," but remained silent when a student suggested he should, as candidate Moin proposed earlier, present parliament with a general amnesty bill if elected.

These comments contrast with Ahmadinejad's reported plans for social restrictions. Legislator Javad Arianmanesh told ILNA on 20 June that Ahmadinejad told legislators that day that he would curb "networks of cultural vulgarity," a possible reference to illegal satellite dishes and foreign CDs available to many Iranians. Another legislator, Laleh Eftekhari, told ILNA the same day that Ahmadinejad's "cultural policies," including the proposed segregation of men and women in universities, parks, and elevators, follow "Islamic laws" and are "a leading demand of the public."

A 22 June editorial in the reformist "Aftab-i Yazd" daily called Rafsanjani a "shield against extremism" and urged him to "respond positively" to his new coalition of supporters. Iranians -- and Rafsanjani -- must be considering the irony in this unexpected turn of affairs. But as reformers who started their political lives as revolutionaries have shown, politicians can change from left-wing radicals to moderates or even dissidents in response to changing times, as too may Rafsanjani. He is already a reputed friend of economic liberalization: on 21 June, he said he would work to boost stock market investment and link the Tehran exchange to "world markets," ILNA reported. Time will tell if he has also become a friend of political liberties.

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For RFE/RL's full coverage of Iran's elections, see "Iran Votes 2005"