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Iran's Elections: 'Back to the Future'

The candidacy of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani is a sign that the Iranian presidential elections next month are a quest for both stability and change, writes Ali Hashem.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gives the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011. Rafsanjani lost his position on Tuesday as head of an important state clerical body after hardliners criticised him for being too close to the reformist opposition. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN - Tags: POLITIC

It's a very rare moment in Iran. Once again, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad changes the equation even though he, personally, isn't part of it. Both the "reformists" and the "principalists" have a single objective in this election: defeating Ahmadinejad's candidate, Esfendyar Rahim Mashaei, or whoever makes it to the final list of candidates. 

It is no longer a fight about reforms or principles; today the main objective is putting an end to Ahmadinejad's popular current, which threatens their political presence.

The man of all seasons — one of few popular elders of the revolution — former President Hashemi Rafsanjani emerged as a last-minute candidate. For years Rafsanjani suffered under Ahmadinejad's rule. Some even suggest it was Ahmadinejad's war on Rafsanjani that first intimidated supreme leader Ayotallah Ali Khamenei back in 2009 during the presidential campaign. The war continued, and the fiercer it got, the stronger the ties between Rafsanjani and the Leader's house became. 

It's as complicated as Iranian politics usually is, but let us not forget that Rafsanjani was always the strongman of the regime when it comes to "national interest," despite his position in the domestic tug of war. 

Why Rafsanjani? And what can this 78-year-old politician do in a country aiming for a greater regional and international role, and under tight sanctions?

Originally, Rafsanjani descends from a town called Bahraman, which is the other Persian word for "ruby," a light pink to blood red gemstone — a stone of luck to many. He himself was regarded as the regime's ruby when he bridged Iran's transition from a state of war to a state of peace. He was the man who facilitated the transition of power after the death of Imam Khomeini and smoothed the selection of Ayatollah Khamenei as his successor. Months before Khomeini's death he convinced him to accept the United Nations security council resolution and put an end to the war with Iraq, a decision that was seen later as a turning point in post-revolution Iran.

Today the man is seen by his supporters as the savior of the nation — this was even chanted on the doorstep of the Interior Ministry when he submitted his candidacy. "God praise Prophet Muhammad; Hashemi is the nation's savior," chanted young men who gathered to see their presidential favorite entering the race. It was clear that these men and women were reformists and that they regard Rafsanjani as their only hope in the absence of former candidates Mehdi Karoubi and Mir-Hussein Mousavi, both under house arrest, and Sayyed Mohammed Khatami who decided not to run. "Greetings upon Hashemi, peace upon Khatami," the young men shouted.

Rafsanjani's plan since last year's legislative election was to pave the way for Khatami to run. In parallel, he tried to reconnect links between the reformists' hopeful and the leader's house, "Khoneh Rahbar." It was a move that faced criticism from both the principalist and reformist camps for electoral reasons.

According to well informed sources in Tehran, "the battle is yet to start, the principalists are not swallowing the Rafsanjani move, though they know it's under Khamenei's auspices. They are going to try to unify their front a much as possible to prove they can do it." 

Within the conservatives, the "2+1" coalition is toughest. Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammed Baqqer Qalibaf, and Gholam Haddad Adel were supposed to select one of them as the final candidate. This is not the case anymore; Velayati announced on Sunday that Saieed Jalili might be the "2+1" candidate. The move was seen by many as an attempt to block Rafsanjani's road to gain the leader's full support by presenting a popular young candidate who is known for his loyalty.

But according to our sources in Tehran, the supreme leader isn't dealing anymore with the election as an internal matter but as a case of "national interest." And in the current situation it might be that the country needs someone who can reopen links with neighboring countries and the west, and who has the power to bring political rivals inside the country to one table. There's also a need for someone who is capable of getting Iran out of its economic crisis. The effects of both the tight sanctions and Ahmadinejad's economic policies are seen by many as being worse than the post-war situation.

What's obvious in Iran is that a fierce election battle will be fought and a new president will be elected approximately a month from now. Who, how, and what after — these are to be decided by the people of Iran, though many think that a post-election crisis, if sparked this time, will be worse than the one of 2009. Then, it was between the regime and the reformists; today it might be within the regime itself.

Ali Hashem is an Arab journalist serving as Al Mayadeen news network's chief correspondent. Until March 2012, Ali was Al Jazeera's war correspondent, and prior to that was a senior journalist at the BBC.

More from Ali Hashem (Iran Pulse)

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