TEHRAN — Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s most enduring political figures, has reentered the spotlight just over a month before Iranians vote in a presidential election.
At 78, Rafsanjani, who was the Islamic Republic’s president from 1989 until 1997, hinted this week that he is considering one more run for the country’s top elected post, a prospect that has at once energized and unsettled Iran’s political class.
Rafsanjani currently heads the Expediency Council, a powerful decision-making body made up of more than 70 senior members of the ruling system, many of them Shiite Muslim clerics. He is considered one of the Islamic Republic’s founding fathers and among its most powerful people.
His announcement of a possible run in the June 14 contest adds a new dimension to an already muddled race. It poses a potential challenge to a field of conservative candidates who differ little from one another. But it also worries allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who hoped to capitalize on what they see as a lack of popular support for any of the conservatives.
“If I am convinced that in the current situation my presence in the election would be beneficial to our system and the Islamic revolution and would help to solve our problems, I will participate without any hesitation,” Rafsanjani told students at Tehran University on Sunday.
Even if Rafsanjani does not run, his endorsement of another candidate could alter the election landscape dramatically in Iran’s brief month-long campaign season, especially since there is no obvious front-runner.
“Rafsanjani, together with others that he’s worked with on and off for decades, has the potential to mobilize. And pre-election mobilization in Iran can lead to unpredictable outcomes — as we saw in 2009,” said Reza Marashi, research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington. Iran’s last presidential election in 2009 captured public interest just days before the vote was held.
For many Iranians, Rafsanjani, believed to be one of the country’s wealthiest people, is also a symbol of the corruption that has plagued Iranian politics since long before the Islamic Republic was established in 1979.
Others see him as a pragmatic voice in the current political order who could help guide Iran out of its current problems and potentially mend relations with the United States.
“A general belief has taken shape among a not negligible number of people inside Iran that Rafsanjani, despite his heavily checkered past, is a nationalist at heart who values the progress of Iran and wants to see it become a powerful country,” said Marashi.
Rafsanjani would likely be the oldest candidate to run. An unsuccessful proposal to change election laws, including an age limit of 75, was widely viewed as a preemptive attempt by parliament to block Rafsanjani from entering the race.
His flirtation with running, besides putting him back in the spotlight after two years of relative silence, could mean trouble for any Ahmadinejad-backed candidate. It has been widely expected that the incumbent’s preferred successor, top aide Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, would pick up support from many Iranians who voted for reformist candidates in previous elections and are disinclined to back one of the many traditionally conservative choices.
“The participation of Rafsanjani in the election as a candidate will alter the electoral landscape, as we have understood it so far, greatly,” said Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies who specializes in Iran.
Although dozens of people have already registered as candidates, it is speculation about Rafsanjani and Mashaei that has captured headlines this week.
Rafsanjani, however, said he would not enter the race without the approval of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as doing so against the leader’s will would have an “adverse result” for the country.
Rafsanjani and Khamenei are believed to be at odds over Rafsanjani’s support of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who became the leader of the 2009 opposition protest movement after losing to Ahmadinejad in a still-disputed election.
Although Rafsanjani on several occasions has publicly backed away from entering political debates, supposedly to avoid creating divisions within the system, some analysts see the show of public deference as a challenge to Khamenei, who would have a difficult time barring one of his fellow founders of the Islamic Republic from running.
Mehdi Fazaeli, a domestic political analyst, told the Fars News Agency this week that Rafsanjani “wants to put the responsibility of his candidacy on the leader, and this is an example of attempting to create tension for the public.”
Any potential Rafsanjani candidacy faces significant opposition. Iran’s minister of intelligence accused Rafsanjani of trying to disrupt the system, renewing allegations that the former president was behind the post-election unrest in 2009. And former foreign minister and potential presidential candidate Manouchehr Mottaki said Rafsanjani’s emergence as a possible contender at this time was “beyond the dignity of our nation.”
One vocal supporter of a Rafsanjani candidacy is the reformist Mohammad Khatami, a fellow former president. “I think he is the person who can best help the system and solve the people’s problems,” Khatami said Friday.
Khatami has denied speculation that he will run, and he could figure prominently in a Rafsanjani administration.
“For some, Rafsanjani represents the hope of a return to a more professional, capable and less volatile management style,” said Parsi. “For others, on the more conservative or principlist side, his return means a comeback for centrist positions and maybe even the return of the reformist wing of Iranian politics.”