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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 Republic.

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 Khordad newspaper.

``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 Khatami.''

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 revolutionary values.

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 once enjoyed.

``The role of king-maker isn't what it used to be,'' said the Western analyst.


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