Thursday, March 10, 2005

Rafsanjani Comeback Tied to Iran Nuke Issue

Paul Hughes, Reuters:
Iran's nuclear negotiations with the West have become entwined with speculation over whether former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will run in Iran's June presidential elections. Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not favour a return of the wily ex-president, analysts say, but if crisis point is reached with the West there is no one else of Rafsanjani's stature who could defuse it. read more

While most analysts expect Iran to delay any key decisions on the nuclear issue until a new government takes over from reformist President Mohammad Khatami in August, a Rafsanjani election bid on June 17 would signal Tehran's concern.

"If he runs it means the regime is very worried about the nuclear issue," said one business consultant, who declined to be named. "The (Supreme) Leader will have to accept a certain sharing of power if Rafsanjani becomes president, something he would rather not have to do."

Iran denies U.S. accusations that its nuclear energy programme masks a covert bid for atomic arms and has refused to contemplate EU demands that it scrap sensitive work like uranium enrichment, which can produce bomb-grade fuel.

Rafsanjani, 70, who held the presidency from 1989 to 1997 and is viewed by most analysts as the second most powerful figure in Iran after Khamenei, has yet to say if he will stand.

Close aides say he will definitely run and will announce his bid close to the vote. Analysts and diplomats speculate that he is awaiting Khamenei's go-ahead.

Rafsanjani, whose nickname "Kuseh" means both "beardless" and "shark" -- apt descriptions of his physical appearance and political acumen, played down speculation that a change in government will have much impact on policy.

"I don't think there will be a change because the nuclear issue is one of the macro-policies of the system and the macro-policies are approved by the Leader," he said on Sunday.


Iran's divided political factions are broadly united on the nuclear issue, which is seen as a matter of national pride.

Analysts say there is little to choose between public statements on nuclear affairs by the reformist Khatami and generally hardline Khamenei.

Since its programme was disclosed by opposition exiles almost three years ago, Iran has adopted a strategy aimed at staying out of serious trouble and keeping within international regulations while pushing the work ahead as much as possible. But a victory by hardline conservatives, now struggling to decide on a consensus presidential candidate, would at the very least lead to a change to a more confrontational Iranian tone.

Ali Larijani, an adviser to Khamenei and one of the leading contenders for the hardline ticket, said on Monday nuclear talks with the EU were useless since Europe was merely toeing Washington's line against Iran.

Reformists, lacking a popular candidate who can overcome tough vetting procedures run by hardliners and ebbing in popularity after eight years of Khatami's meagre reforms, are not expected to pose a serious threat in the vote.

The presidential elections could hardly come at a more sensitive time for Iran.

If, as most diplomats expect, Iran-EU nuclear talks fail to produce a breakthrough over the next three months, the United States will seek EU support at the next meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, also in mid-June, to push for referral of Iran's nuclear activities to the U.N. Security Council.


Most analysts expect Iran will try to defer any crisis or deal until after August when the new government is installed.

"In the run-up to the presidential elections, I don't think Iran has any interest in showing any flexibility because they will be strongly criticised internally for giving away Iran's rights," said Gary Samore, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"I don't think Iran has made up its mind yet whether to stand its ground and ride out the storm or to strike a deal with the Europeans that defers its programme for a while longer," he said at a nuclear conference in Tehran this month. "I don't expect them to take this decision until the fall."

Rafsanjani aides have met Western diplomats, boasting that he is the man to address their concerns, not just on the nuclear issue but also on Iran's alleged support for terrorism, human rights abuses and refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist.

"The other candidates either don't have the support, experience or calibre ... or are extremists who believe they become more powerful through confrontation with the West," Mohammad Atrianfar, a newspaper publisher and aide to Rafsanjani, told Reuters.

"Rafsanjani is a very competent manager and a leader. He has been involved in politics for half a century. He can manage these challenges with the international community."

Some remain sceptical.

"Rafsanjani has this reputation as a fixer, but it's hard to pinpoint exactly what he fixed during the eight years he was president," said a senior European diplomat in Tehran.