May 13, 2005

Iranians hold their noses as they pick new president (Simon Tisdall, Friday May 13, 2005, The Guardian)

Iranians may have to hold their noses when they go to the polls in next month's presidential election. This is only partly the result of a new craze for surgical nose jobs among Tehran's fashionable youth.

Like the British electorate, Iran's 46 million voters are a bit sniffy about the candidates on offer. The favourite, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, conveys a distinct whiff of mothballs. A loyalist of Iran's revolutionary leader, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he has been president twice before, from 1989 to 1997.

Mr Rafsanjani is being portrayed by some in the west as the only man (women being ineligible to stand) capable of bridging the gulf between Iran's dominant mullahs and thwarted reformers.

But the real contest may lie elsewhere. The reform movement is in disarray after eight years of lost battles under the discredited outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami.

The more fundamental question, not to be decided at the ballot box, is whether Mr Rafsanjani can reconcile the warring conservative factions of ideologues and pragmatists that collectively control the levers of power.

The touchstone issues are Iran's controversial nuclear programmes, its under-performing centralised economy, and pent-up social discontent. Any one, if mishandled, could trigger a new national convulsion.

"Although Iran's hardline leadership has maintained a remarkable unity of purpose in the face of reformist challengers, it is badly fragmented over foreign policy issues, including the importance of nuclear weapons," said Kenneth Pollack, a former US national security council official, in Foreign Affairs magazine.

"At one end of the spectrum are hardliners who disparage economic and diplomatic considerations and put security concerns ahead of all others. At the opposite end are pragmatists who believe that fixing Iran's failing economy must trump all else if the clerical regime is to retain power over the long term."

Mr Rafsanjani, doyen of the pragmatic tendency, told a radio interviewer recently that western pressure on Iran to permanently freeze its nuclear enrichment activities was unjust and must be rejected.

"The Americans need a tangible enemy they can parade before other countries," he said. "Americans have always done that. And now Britain has joined them. It's nothing new. Britain often acts as America's lap-dog."

Yet unveiling his election manifesto this week, Mr Rafsanjani adopted a more positive tone towards Iranians, half of whom were born after the 1979 revolution, who yearn for normal relations with Europe and the US and a more open, civil society.

He promised to "build international confidence" by fostering links with the west and "meet the challenge of a young society" by addressing unemployment, poverty, gender inequality and greater economic liberalisation.

Whether his balancing act will work this time is doubtful. Hardline clerics are determined to oppose him come what may. Allegations about extra-judicial killings and corruption during his presidency have been resurrected.

His shop-worn brand of ambiguous pragmatism also has scant appeal for impatient younger generations, said Mohsen Sazegara, a former Khomeini official turned government critic. Iran had "undergone a profound post- revolution social transformation" not matched by its political institutions, he said in an online debate hosted by

"There is huge dissatisfaction with the way the country is governed. The overwhelm ing majority of young Iranians are against the regime. This situation is really dangerous." Radical reform, starting with a new constitution, was essential, Mr Sazegara said.

Mr Rafsanjani's strategy, assuming he is victorious, remains a mystery. "He must have made a deal with the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei]," a western diplomat speculated. "I can't believe he wants to be more repressive. They must have agreed on some sort of programme."

Arab newspapers have reported that Mr Rafsanjani will move to repair relations with the US, back the Saudi peace plan for Israel-Palestine, and revive his predecessor's domestic reforms.

But if he really has such plans, he is not letting on. Crossed fingers as well as nose-pegs may be needed on June 17.


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