TEHRAN: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s statement that his decision to run in Iran’s presidential election was like having to swallow medicine belies a strong desire to stand and a deep confidence he can win. In the clearest hint he would seek to reclaim the post he held from 1989 to 1997, Rafsanjani, 70, said on Monday he was preparing to “swallow this bitter medicine” and run in the June 17 vote.

“What I didn’t want to happen is happening now,” he said.

The influential cleric’s long-expected appearance in the election race will hearten Western diplomats and foreign investors who feared a hardline triumph would turn the clock back on Iran’s tentative foreign and economic policy moderation.

“With Rafsanjani finally in the picture, the race is really on,” said a political analyst, who declined to be named. “He’s the one everyone’s been waiting for and will start as a clear favourite.”

But Rafsanjani does have to be careful. His last venture to the ballot box, in 2000 parliamentary elections, ended in embarrassing failure following widespread accusations of financial wrongdoing and involvement in the murder of several political dissidents.

Rafsanjani denies amassing a personal fortune for himself and his family through corruption and nepotism and says the political killings did not occur on his watch.

“Given who he is, I think he has to appear reluctant to stand,” said a senior European diplomat in Tehran. “It doesn’t look good to for him to want it too much, but he clearly does.”

US ISSUES: In a bold step in February, Rafsanjani told the USA Today newspaper he was capable of solving Tehran’s problems with arch-foe Washington.

Rafsanjani aides have also opened quiet diplomatic channels with European diplomats, assuring them his experience and political weight meant he can deliver real progress on the West’s chief concerns, such as Iran’s nuclear programme and alleged support for terrorism. A senior government official said Rafsanjani had delayed his decision until opinion polls gave him the confidence to stand.

“He will not risk what happened to him in 2000 happening again. He will only stand if he knows he will win,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Close aides to Rafsanjani, who currently heads the powerful Expediency Council policy-making body, say polls give Rafsanjani more than three times the support of his nearest rival, former police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

Qalibaf’s fellow hardliners and pro-reform candidates such as former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi trail well behind. The only poll to be made public, by the official IRNA news agency in March, also gave Rafsanjani a clear lead.

Outgoing reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami is barred by law from standing for a third consecutive term.

By delaying his announcement, Rafsanjani has so far been able to avoid the expected barrage of attacks and inquiries about his business dealings and role in political murders.

But his opponents are waiting.

“If Rafsanjani decides to run, other candidates would provide a critique of that period when he was in charge and for the sake of transparency he must provide answers,” Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, campaign chief for reformist former Parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, said last week.

Official candidate registration is from May 10 to May 14.

POWERBROKER: Close aides say a Rafsanjani win is needed to check the power of hardliners who since gaining control of parliament last year have questioned foreign investment deals, plundered state coffers for handouts and subsidies and taken a defiant stance on Iran’s nuclear programme.

“We’re facing an extremist movement in Iran which is trying to gain power,” said Rafsanjani backer Mohammad Atrianfar, publisher of the reformist Shargh newspaper. “What we’re saying is we’re facing a choice between good and bad.”

But some analysts say Rafsanjani may find his ability to act impeded by the hardline parliament and say his standing among the powerful Revolutionary Guards and with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is not as high as it once was.

“It’s very likely he won’t actually be able to deliver what he promises but he’s still probably the best of a bad lot,” said another European diplomat.—Reuters

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