- - Sunday, May 26, 2013

TEHRAN — I was sitting with a group of friends Tuesday night, playing cards and talking nonsense, when Sadegh looked up from his laptop, wild-eyed.

“Hashemi has been disqualified,” he said, using the common name for Ayatollah Rafsanjani.

We looked at each other in a sort of giddy shock.

“Who says?”

“No way!”

“I can’t believe it.”

“They have some gall.”

The Guardian Council, which is responsible for vetting presidential candidates, was not supposed to announce its final list of approved hopefuls — from a pool of nearly 700 — until the next day.

But Mehr News, one of the country’s many semi-official news outlets, managed to leak the list of eight finalists a day early.

And Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the two surviving founding members of the Islamic republic, a pillar of the Islamic Revolution, was not among them.

Ever since the chairman of the Expediency Council and former two-term president of Iran declared his candidacy in dramatic, last-minute fashion May 11, Iranian and foreign media had been buzzing about what form a Rafsanjani campaign would take and whether he could rescue the country’s crippled economy if elected.

Many commentators had asserted that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowing Ayatollah Rafsanjani to run would be a stroke of genius.

First, it would draw otherwise apathetic, reform-minded Iranians to the polls, prompting the large turnout that the regime relies on for legitimacy.

And second, while Ayatollah Rafsanjani is associated with the opposition’s failed “Green Movement” of 2009 and the protests that followed that presidential election — widely dismissed as fraudulent — he has proved in the ensuing years not to be especially insistent in his criticism.

In other words, he is seen as someone whom the supreme leader might feel he could control.

From May 11 to 21, the prospect of these elections among those in their 20s and 30s had shifted from pronounced apathy to a kind of cautious excitement. I heard people describe Ayatollah Rafsanjani as “great,” as “noble-intentioned,” even as a figure whose legacy could be “the saving of the Islamic republic for posterity.”

This, of a man who had long been ridiculed as not only the richest person in Iran but as one of the country’s most corrupt.

However, this seemingly new found respect for the veteran pragmatist is not surprising. Iranians’ main concern at the moment is obviously the economy. People from all walks of life have seen their purchasing power drop dramatically over the past two years. Unemployment and inflation are out of control

Ayatollah Rafsanjani is credited more than any other individual for reviving the Iranian economy after the devastation from the war with Iraq. There was talk that the Bazaari merchant class was solidly behind him. The day he announced his candidacy, the currency appreciated by 3 percent to 5 percent in a matter of hours.

Whether he would have been able, as president, to actually do anything to seek rapprochement with the West and ease the sanctions is anyone’s guess.

But the disappointment among those who planned to vote for him is clear.

Parvis, 26, is unemployed, but he has an master’s degree in political science. “[Ayatollah Khamenei] is not even willing to allow a contest. He’s not even willing to go through the facade anymore. It’s just the ayatollahs and the [Revolutionary] Guards. That’s all that’s left. Our country belongs to them.”

Others were simply shocked.

Danyal, 30, who says he never had any intention of voting for anybody, asked, “What excuse do they have? That he’s old? He’s only a few years older than Khamenei. Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani is so old he can’t even walk, and he’s one of the most powerful people in the country.”

Of course, there are those who are delighted that the wily 78-year-old Ayatollah Rafsanjani will not be given any air time.

“He loves the West, everything about it. He would sell Iran’s nuclear technology to Israel if there was profit in it for him,” quipped Rostam, a jocular employee at one of Iran’s conservative daily newspapers.

“He says we are not at war with Israel. Then who is killing our nuclear scientists? Who is stopping us from selling our oil? He just wants to be popular with America. He thinks he’ll win a Nobel Peace Prize like Obama.”

There is certainly no chance of that now.

Brendan Daly is a pseudonym to protect the reporter against government reprisals.



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