Whether Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president, wins next month’s presidential election or not, his candidacy has disrupted the Islamic regime’s plans to hand over power to a loyal fundamentalist.
Mr Rafsanjani registered for the June 14 poll at the very last minute on Saturday after weeks of weighing the potential repercussions.
Many reformers and conservatives had been urging the 79-year-old former president to run for months, arguing that he is the only heavyweight politician who can address the growing international pressure over Iran’s nuclear programme and its economic hardships.
But it is an open secret in Tehran that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been opposed to his old comrade running and that has given Mr Rafsanjani’s candidacy the air of a direct challenge to the top ruler’s authority.
At a time when the departing president, Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, and his camp are accused of disloyalty to the supreme leader and advancing their candidate the Rafsanjani candidacy poses a major conundrum for the regime.
The Guardian Council, the constitutional watchdog which has to sign off on the presidential candidates in the next week, is widely expected to disqualify Esfandiar Rahim-Mashaei, Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s former chief of staff who also entered the race on Saturday. But analysts believe that is unlikely to happen to Mr Rafsanjani and it was unclear how the regime would try to undermine him.
“[Ayatollah Khamenei] has two choices now: To let [Mr] Rafsanjani win the election and get public credit that only he can resolve the country’s problems or to go for a massive crackdown, the end of which would not be clear,” said one reform-minded politician.
Mr Rafsanjani’s relations with the supreme leader foundered after the former president sided with the reformist Green Movement, which staged huge protests in 2009 against the allegedly flawed re-election of Mr Ahmadi-Nejad.
Mr Rafsanjani became more visible last year after he was reinstated by the supreme leader to run the Expediency Council and draft macroeconomic policies. He also arrived at last August’s nonaligned movement summit shoulder-to-shoulder with Ayatollah Khamenei.
But few believe the supreme leader and his regime would like to see Mr Rafsanjani return to the presidency.
The upcoming presidential election is crucial for the Islamic regime and the first since the disputed poll in 2009.
To have a peaceful election with a credibly high turnout, many analysts believe that the regime’s power centres, notably the elite Revolutionary Guards, had planned to engineer an election where several fundamentalist candidates loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei could compete with each other.
Mr Rafsanjani’s entry into the race has emerged as a game-changer, however, and the supreme leader is likely to adjust.
Ali-Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and adviser to Iran’s supreme leader who has also registered as a candidate, said on Sunday that various fundamentalist groups now needed to unite, in a shift from previous positions.
“We would not step back under any conditions from our determination not to let anyone who has differences with the supreme leader to take hold of the country’s affairs,” he said in a clear reference to Mr Rafsanjani.
This may mean, he indicated, that fundamentalists such as himself and Tehran mayor Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf could withdraw in favour of Saeed Jalili, Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator.
Mr Jalili does not enjoy any particular popularity among people but the regime may play up his simple lifestyle, without any record of corruption.
Should he turn into the leading fundamentalist candidate Mr Jalili could be presented as the clean politician versus Mr Rafsanjani, whose children have been the target of a crackdown and accused of corruption.
Mr Rafsanjani enjoys the public support of Mohammad Khatami, the popular reformist former president, who, according to some insiders, has promised to travel around the country and campaign for his predecessor.
Iran’s business community, which has traditionally backed Mr Rafsanjani because of his support for a market economy and past pushes for detente with the west in foreign policy, is divided on what his return to the presidency would mean. Some are optimistic. But others fear it would bring fresh tensions with the supreme leader and more street protests.
His advanced age and the fact that he was a symbol of the regime for decades are also unappealing to many ordinary Iranians.
“If I vote for Rafsanjani, it would be only because he is a choice between bad and worse,” said Hamid-Reza, a civil engineer.
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