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Man in the shadows
Rafsanjani eyeing the presidency

By Dariush Sajjadi
August 25, 2000
The Iranian

Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's letter to the Majlis to remove the press law amendment from its agenda pitted him against public opinion, as the amendment had huge popular support. He openly confronted the reformists for the first time since President Khatami's election and elicited the wrath of Iranians and world public opinion.

Given that all Majlis bills have to go through the conservative Council of Guardians and, on occasion, the Expediency Council, for final approval, Khamenei's direct intervention was not necessary. But the fact that he has could be interpreted as a measure tactfully orchestrated by the chairman of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a master of covert diplomacy in Iranian politics.

Rafsanjani, who faced a severe and unexpected defeat in the sixth Majlis elections after the reformist press lashed out at him, spent some time in the shadows harboring a deep grudge against the reformist press.

After his defeat in the elections, Rafsanjani, as chairman of the Expediency Council (which oversees and settles disputes between the Majlis and Council of Guardians), had two choices. First, he could settle inevitable differences between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians in favor of the reformists and thus improve his tarnished political image by getting close to the reformists. Second, he could adopt a hostile stance toward the reformists by dismantling their legislations in a bid to take revenge.

Some analysts contend that the mass crackdown on the independent press is the inevitable outcome of the reformist papers' battle with Rafsanjani. In confronting him, the reformist press paid no heed to his power and influence. If the reformists had befriended Rafsanjani instead, they could have averted their current bitter fate.

Rafsanjani's recent Friday prayers sermon in which he decisively defended the Leader's constitutional right to steer the course of reforms is an important signal. The night before, Rafsajani was in a joint meeting with Khamenei and heads of the three branches of government. The importance of the signal lies in the fact that 48 hours after the sermon, the Leader sent his letter to the Majlis intercepting the press law amendment, proving Rafsanjani's influence.

This is typical of Rafsanjani's unique political tactics. In 1988, the same tactic was at work when in an exclusive interview with the Tehran-based moderate newspaper Ettelaat, he recounted memories of the early days of the revolution and noted that he recommended Khamenei for membership in the Revolutionary Council, which was set up by Ayatollah Khomeini as an interim govering body. Rafsanjani, in this interview, implied that he was the one who introduced Khamenei to the political power pyramid and as such, Iran's future Leader is indebted to him.

In the course of the press law amendment, Rafsanjani was well aware that it was going to be easily passed by the Majlis. He also knew well that the Council of Guardians would certainly veto it, landing it ultimately into his own hands as chairman of the Expediency Council. Then all eyes would have been fixed on Rafsanjani to see how he would approach the amendment -- a situation that would have constituted a very big dilemma for him.

Given his bitter memories of the reformist papers, Rafsanjani had no incentive to approve the press law amendment which would have strengthened the reformist press. On the other hand, popular support for it was very high, and Rafsanjani's opposition would have turned the public further against him.

Apparently Rafsanjani, in a realistic evaluation, avoided this dilemma by throwing the ball into the Leader's court by convincing him to intervene directly, an intervention that was totally needless. It served only to save Rafsanjani from a tough future decision. Now he is sitting in the shadows with peace of mind, having settled his scores with the reformist papers.

The Leader's intervention has put the reopening of banned reformist papers in limbo. In their absence, Rafsanjani can think about running for president next year. Four years have lapsed since his tenure as president ended and he can legally run again. If he, by relying on his political allies, succeeds in exaggerating the country's economic problems during Khatami's presidency and magnifies Khatami's inability to solve them, he can take a powerful leap to win next year's presidential elections.

To this end, Rafsanjani strives to convince the public that he has the required management skills to improve the country's economy. Then in an unequal battle with Khatami, who will lack the press to support him, Rafsanjani will have high chances of becoming the next president.

Khatami, however, experienced this unequal war in the May 1997 elections and came out victorious. But next year's presidential election will be very different: In 2001, Khatami will have a four-year track record as president, a track record which will allow the people to compare his performance with that of his rivals. In case Khatami's opponents stress on the country's unfavorable economic conditions, it would help Rafsanjani to launch his campaign for the presidency.

It is important to note that Rafsanjani does not care about the number of votes he gets. He attaches prime importance to victory, irrespective of the number of votes. In case he runs for president, Rafsanjani would, in his heart of hearts, like to win 20 million votes, as Khatami did. But even if this does not happen, Rafsanjani would not care, as he only wants to win, be it with 20 million votes or just 5 million. He prefers to focus on the top layers of Iran's power pyramid.


Dariush Sajjadi is a journalist and political analyst specializing on Iran.

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