Voice of Ambition
Robert Tait, The Guardian:
Exactly a year ago today, the political career of Iran's wiliest political grandee, Hashemi Rafsanjani, appeared at an end, obliterated by the crushing populist tidal wave that swept Mahout Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Yet 12 months on from that crushing presidential election defeat and with Ahmadinejad and his powerful fundamentalist allies riding high, Rafsanjani is preparing a quixotic final bid for political power - with backing from some surprising quarters.
Marginalised in the hardline religious zeitgeist that has accompanied Ahmadinejad's rise, the pragmatic Rafsanjani has set his sights on becoming speaker of the Assembly of Experts, an 86-member body which is most important because of its role in choosing Iran's supreme leader, the Islamic regime's most powerful position.
If he succeeds, Rafsanjani, 72, a former president whose personal reputation has been sullied by rumours of vast (and illicit) wealth accumulated since the revolution, would be in prime position to become supreme leader himself when the post is vacated by the current incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. READ MORE
With such high stakes, October's elections for the Assembly promise to turn into a bloody, bruising battle for the Islamic Republic's soul.
For Rafsanjani's aspirations represent a red flag to Ahmadinejad and his ultra-conservative supporters. The former president's support for a deal with America over Iran's nuclear programme and his free-market economic policies are anathema to the current government, which advocates showing the West no quarter while pursuing a course of budget-busting state handouts in the face of repeated warnings of future economic problems.
Accordingly, Rafsanjani's power bid is setting him up for a showdown with Ayatollah Mohammed Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, an arch-fundamentalist and mentor of President Amadinejad.
Mesbah-Yazdi, who is believed to covet the supreme leader's job himself, has been assiduously mobilising support among hardline clerics in his quest for the Assembly's speakership.
"Hardliners and radicals who are opposed to Mr Rafsanjani's moderate stances, notably vis-à-vis the West and his open-door, laissez-faire economic policy, are very much against his candidacy to the Expert's Assembly," said Dr Sadegh Zibakalam, a political analyst at Tehran University. "If Rafsanjani were elected, it is not unfeasible or unlikely that he could become supreme leader himself if something were to happen to Ayatollah Khamenei. The hardliners want to discredit him and do whatever it takes to prevent him becoming a nominee and a member of the Expert's Assembly."
This took a vitriolic form this month when Rafsanjani was forced to abandon a televised speech in the holy city of Qom - the base of Iran's religious establishment - after being heckled by Mesbah-Yazdi supporters. In a crushing insult to one of the pillars of the 1979 Islamic revolutionary generation, Rafsanjani was loudly denounced as an "appeaser" and "counter-revolutionary". The hecklers, most of whom wore clerical dress, were arrested but later released without charge. The attack was widely seen as a blatant attempt to intimidate the former president into abandoning his ambitions. Rafsanjani, who appeared shaken by the abuse, subsequently cancelled his public engagements and has since declined interview requests.
Far from signalling a retreat from the stage, however, the Qom humiliation has prompted a startling new alliance of convenience in which Iran's now largely eclipsed reformist movement is backing Rafsanjani's - as yet formally unannounced - Expert's Assembly campaign. It is an extraordinary switch of loyalties on the part of a political grouping which once viewed Rafsanjani as an object of scorn. The extent of his rehabilitation within liberal circles was amply demonstrated in the extensive coverage given to his ordeal by the few reformist newspapers still allowed to publish.
Triggering it is the alarm with which reformists view the prospect of a Mesbah-Yazdi-led Expert's Assembly. Leading reformists commonly dismiss President Ahmadinejad as a hardliners' "mouthpiece" and an insult to the nation whose election represented a silent military coup rather than an expression of democracy.
As the products of an educated urban elite who disdain Ahmadinejad's populism, the reformists see a mortal threat in Mesbah-Yazdi's much-publicised advocacy of violence against political opponents. They also fear his closeness to the intelligence community, which has in the past been implicated in the murders of political dissidents. Equally unnerving was the description last month in a magazine published by Mesbah-Yazdi of Rafsanjani, along with the reformist former president, Mohammed Khatami, and the former chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, as "traitors to Islam and Iran" who should be disqualified from office.
With Ayatollah Khamenei now squarely in their camp, controlling the expert's assembly would effectively put all the major state bodies in the hardliners' hands, having already captured the presidency and the parliament.
For reformers and liberals that prospect represents a picture of unleavened political adversity. And out of it they are praying for the resurrection of a political career whose obituaries they were once all too happy to write.