Iran looks, again, to experienced captain

TEHRAN, Iran — Somehow, most of the tangled strands of the U.S.-Iran relationship have wound up in his hands.
 By Behrouz Mehri, AFP


Unfreezing Iranian assets would be “the best positive sign” of U.S. goodwill towards Iran and initiating talks, Rafsanjani said.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, was Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997. In 1985, he helped arrange a clandestine deal with the Reagan administration, a trade of U.S. arms for Iran’s help in freeing Americans held hostage by Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon. A decade later, Rafsanjani brokered a multibillion-dollar deal with Conoco that could have marked a turning point in U.S.-Iranian relations — until President Clinton blocked it under pressure from the Republican-led Congress. (Related itemText of Rafsanjani interview)

Now, Rafsanjani is poised to take power again. Though he hasn’t agreed to run, he is the consensus front-runner for Iran’s presidential election June 17. His son, Mehdi Hashemi, says his father wants to “solve the American problem. Because if he solves the American problem, he solves all Iranian problems.”

A midlevel cleric from a pistachio-growing family in Rafsanjan in south-central Iran, Rafsanjani (Iranians often make their hometown part of their names) has been a pivotal figure for the past quarter-century. He is a master politician who has used power, skill and luck to become one of the most powerful figures in Iran. (Related story: Ex-leader: Iran, U.S. can agree)

In 1981, he left a room at the headquarters of the ruling Islamic Republican Party just before a bomb planted by an Islamic-Marxist opposition group exploded and killed 74 officials, including a cleric who was then the second most powerful man in Iran, after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 revolution.

Now Rafsanjani is arguably the second most powerful man in the country, behind the current supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a former president whom Rafsanjani helped anoint after Khomeini’s death in 1989.

Rafsanjani is credited with persuading Khomeini to accept a cease-fire in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, which killed or injured 750,000 Iranians. Relatively liberal on the issue of personal freedoms, he is pro-business and pro-foreign investment, in part because he and his family have profited from deals in oil, automobiles and airlines.

The Rafsanjani file

Name: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.Age: 70. Born Aug. 25, 1934 in Rafsanjan, Iran.


At age 14, went to Qom to study in Shiite Muslim theological center; reached the midlevel rank of hojatoislam.

In the 1960s, joined the movement against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was jailed five times over 15 years.

After the 1979 revolution, served as speaker of the parliament from 1980 to 1989.

In 1989-97, served as president of Iran.

Currently: Heads the Expediency Council, a body that is supposed to mediate disputes between parliament and the executive branch and also sits on the Assembly of Experts, which chooses Iran’s supreme religious leader.

His son, interviewed here last week, says the family is not eager to see Rafsanjani run again because “we have everything” already. But Iran needs him again, Hashemi says.

Indeed, these are uncertain times for Iran. The United States and Israel are threatening military action if Iran does not give up its nuclear program. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops are across Iran’s borders in Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iranian hard-liners are trying to reinvigorate a faded revolution, in part by defying the United States over the nuclear program.

Rafsanjani’s family is not alone in predicting a comeback for him. Rafsanjani “is an experienced captain at a time of turbulence in the sea,” says Nasser Hadian, a professor of political science at Tehran University.

Rafat Bayot, an independent member of parliament from Zanjan province west of Tehran, calls Rafsanjani “very smart, very brave and one of the pillars of the revolution” who can deal with internal and external threats.

Rafsanjani also has a dark side. He has been linked in the Iranian press to the killings of dissidents during his presidential terms.

In 2000, Rafsanjani ran last in parliamentary elections for a seat from Tehran after a journalist, Akbar Ganji, accused him of involvement in the deaths of 80 writers and dissidents. Rafsanjani and his family deny the accusations. But a former intelligence officer who could have testified against him, Saeed Emami, died in prison under suspicious circumstances in 1999. Ganji was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison for “spreading propaganda about the Islamic regime.”

In an interview, Rafsanjani’s brother, Mohammed Hashemi, said most of the murders of dissidents occurred under Rafsanjani’s successor, the current president, Mohammad Khatami. But Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric and Khatami supporter, says the murders started under Rafsanjani. Among the victims was an Iranian intellectual, Ali Akbar Saidi Sirjani, who died in prison in 1994.

Iran’s cleric-run government has long taken an aggressive line toward Israel and the United States as well as Iranian dissidents. It has backed operatives and terrorist groups that have carried out attacks outside Iran’s borders — controversial actions that occurred on Rafsanjani’s watch.

For example, an arrest warrant was issued in Germany in 1996 for Rafsanjani’s intelligence minister, Ali Fallahian, for organizing the assassination of three Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992. Rafsanjani was also president in 1994, when Iranian agents blew up a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing more than 80 people, and in 1996, when Iranian-backed Saudi Shiite terrorists blew up the Khobar Towers housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 American airmen. Iran’s alleged involvement in the Khobar Towers attack is one of many reasons for deep hostility toward Iran among U.S. government officials.

Meanwhile, however, the first reformist newspaper in Islamic Iran, Salaam, was begun during Rafsanjani’s tenure, Kadivar says, and during his presidency, the regime eased its grip on culture and the private lives of its citizens.

Rafsanjani “is better than the conservatives,” Kadivar says. He and other reformists say that only Rafsanjani is strong enough to counterbalance Khamenei and the hard-liners who swept to power in parliamentary elections last year after reformists were barred from participating.

Ironically, Rafsanjani had a hand in that victory by the conservatives. After being attacked by reformists over the murders of dissidents, he lent his considerable backing to the hard-liners in their move to bar reformist candidates. But he has a chameleon-like ability to avoid being pegged as a hard-liner himself.

“The only choice that would push Iran toward moderation is Rafsanjani,” says Mohammed Atrianfar, chief editorial director of Shargh, a reform-leaning newspaper here that is strongly supporting a Rafsanjani candidacy.

Rafsanjani’s son says that, if elected, his father will change Iran’s constitution to reduce the power of Iran’s supreme religious leader and make the position a ceremonial role akin to “the king of England.”

Hashemi also says that only his father can prevent the country from losing any semblance of pluralism, albeit within a small religious-backed elite.

“If my father doesn’t run, all of the country will be under one group, and after that we won’t have any free elections,” he says.



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