11 Mar 2005


TEHRAN: Irans nuclear negotiations with the West have become entwined with speculation over whether former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will run in Irans June presidential elections.

Irans most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, 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 Rafsanjanis stature who could defuse it.

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 Tehrans 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 US 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 Khameneis 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 dont 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.

UNITED ON N-ISSUE: Irans 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 Washingtons 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 Khatamis 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 UN nuclear watchdog, also in mid-June, to push for referral of Irans nuclear activities to the UN 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 dont think Iran has any interest in showing any flexibility because they will be strongly criticised internally for giving away Irans rights, said Gary Samore, director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.Reuters