West might welcome Rafsanjani to power in Iran

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TEHRAN — The political obituary of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been written several times — when he lost a comeback presidential bid, when he was dumped from leading Friday prayers at Tehran University, when he was pushed out as head of a panel that will pick Iran’s next supreme leader.

Yet there he was last month walking alongside Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and greeting dignitaries at a global gathering of so-called nonaligned nations in Tehran. Mr. Rafsanjani then was seated next to the main VIP guest, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

It was another renaissance moment for Iran’s great political survivor.

This time it carried added intrigue as a possible sign the 78-year-old eminence grise, who favors a moderate approach toward the West, could have at least one major power play left.

With elections in nine months to select the successor for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — who is making his last presidential visit to the U.N.’s General Assembly this week — speculation is rising on who will be the ruling system’s choice and, therefore, the instant front-runner.

Until recently, Mr. Rafsanjani had not been mentioned among the top possible contenders to replace Mr. Ahmadinejad, who must step aside because of term limits.

Closely held intentions

Mr. Rafsanjani, as always, keeps his intentions very closely guarded. He has not spoken publicly about aspirations of returning to the presidency 16 years after leaving office or becoming the powerful patron for a candidate.

That has not stopped his name from increasingly creeping into the mix — particularly after his high-profile role during the late August summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, a Cold War-era group that Iran seeks to transform into an alternative voice to Western power as Tehran battles international pressures over its nuclear program.

“He appeared as the second most powerful figure of the ruling establishment for international guests,” wrote Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of politics at Tehran University, in a post on his website.

“This was a very heavy and bitter blow to hard-liners. His participation in the next presidential elections is the main concern of hard-liners.”

The thinking goes that Iranian leadership will do whatever it takes to avoid the chaos and violence that greeted Mr. Ahmadinejad’s disputed 2009 re-election.

The regime is likely to block any pro-reform candidates and possibly seek a more centrist figure than those mentioned as apparent hopefuls, including Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei.

This could open room for Mr. Rafsanjani to pose as one of the few establishment leaders capable of reaching out to Iran’s simmering opposition, while also trying to calm the West, where Mr. Rafsanjani built a reputation as a pragmatic leader during his years as president from 1989-97.

A potential run by Mr. Rafsanjani — or a protege he backs — would likely be received favorably in Washington and among Western allies. Although part of the ruling system for decades, he is also widely viewed as more flexible and possibly more in tune with the West than most of the other old guard.

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