ANALYSIS-Is Iran's Rafsanjani losing his grip?
By Jonathan Lyons
TEHRAN, May 16 (Reuters) - Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,
for 20 years the consummate insider of post-revolutionary Iranian politics,
appears to be losing control of the hidden levers of power in the Islamic
A string of recent political setbacks, on top of a legacy of grand
development schemes gone sour, has badly dented the popular image of a
man whose power and influence were once so awe-inspiring that ordinary
Iranians dubbed him ``Akbar Shah.''
``Mr Rafsanjani has been a key figure in the revolution and the Islamic
Republic for the past two decades,'' commentator Akbar Ganji told the reformist
``In the third decade of the revolution he will no longer play the
same role he played in the first two,'' said Ganji, in what some analysts
are pointing to as the first draft of Rafsanjani's political epitaph.
Ganji and others say the former president, in office from 1989-1997,
has lost the ability to shelter his political allies - including his own
daughter - from the wrath of the conservative clerical establishment. At
the same time, the centrist movement he founded is slipping inexorably
into the reformist camp of President Mohammad Khatami.
The rules of the game have changed,'' said one Western political analyst.
``Rafsanjani's 'insider' style no longer fits the new Iran of President
In the two years since his landslide election, Khatami has overseen
the institutionalisation of two new elements in Iranian political life:
the rule of law and the power of public opinion. Neither would appear to
suit Rafsanjani, a Shi'ite Moslem cleric more at home in the corridors
of power than in the public arena.
But supporters say he is working furiously behind the scenes, hallmark
of the Rafsanjani style of compromise and back-room deal making. If the
current competition between conservatives and reformers deadlocks, they
say, the centrist former president could yet emerge the winner.
On the surface at least the record is clear, providing his critics
with plenty of ammunition.
Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the dynamic former mayor of Tehran and a Rafsanjani
protege, was jailed earlier this month on corruption charges. In his defence,
the mayor said he was simply carrying out Rafsanjani's orders to remake
the capital after the devastation of the eight-year war with Iraq.
``He managed only a last-minute expression of regret after his behind-the-scenes
efforts to prevent this incident came to nothing. Still, people expected
more of him,'' said the economic daily Jahan-e Eqtesadi.
Rafsanjani, 64, also failed to defend publicly the minister of culture,
once his vice president, from hardliners fearful of debasement of Iran's
At the same time, the Revolutionary Court closed an influential daily
run by his daughter, the MP Faezeh Hashemi, for alleged anti-Islamic activity,
leaving the publisher to point helplessly at the past revolutionary contributions
of the Rafsanjani family.
Most significant of all, the centrist political movement Rafsanjani
inspired, the Servants of Construction, is moving rapidly to the left in
order to keep its popular base after poor showings at the polls.
Elected president in 1988 with 94.5 percent of the vote on promises
to reconstruct war-ravaged Iran, Rafsanjani saw his electoral strength
slip to 63 percent in his 1993 victory for a second term - in the lowest
turnout in a presidential poll.
Analysts say failure to deliver on pledges of greater social and political
liberalisation and an easing of Iran's international isolation in part
lay behind the public's discontent.
Today, many Iranians see his legacy as one of wide-spread corruption
and heavy foreign borrowing to pay for ambitious development plans. That
has saddled President Khatami with a moribund economy and few immediate
prospects for improvement.
With the election of Khatami, Rafsanjani was widely seen as slipping
into a central role behind the scenes.
He chairs a powerful council created to resolve conflicts between the
legislative and executive branches of government and map out iran's economic
future. Supporters are trying to get his clerical rank elevated to that
of ayatollah, which would further boost his prestige.
But with the rising importance of elected office and the growing power
of public opinion, say analysts, the post has lost much of the lustre it
``The role of king-maker isn't what it used to be,'' said the Western