Wednesday, June 3, 2009

If Iranians reject a second term for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then Mohsen Rezaie — the other conservative in the race — may bear some responsibility.

Mr. Rezaie, a former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has virtually no chance of winning the June 12 elections, but he could siphon off conservative support and help keep the incumbent from getting 50 percent of the votes. That would force a runoff on June 19 between the top two vote-getters that Mr. Ahmadinejad could well lose.

“I see his presence in the race helping [reformist candidate Mir Hossein] Mousavi and draining some conservatives away from Ahmadinejad,” said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service and author of a book on the Revolutionary Guards, “The Warriors of Islam.”

“I see him as part of the moderate conservative grouping opposing Ahmadinejad.”

Mr. Rezaie, who advocates negotiations with the U.S. and pro-business economic policies, has made his distaste for Mr. Ahmadinejad clear.

In an e-mail interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Rezaie said he decided to run because his rivals would “either lead our country to the brink of a precipice or take us back in time. I felt the danger and therefore stepped in to prevent this.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad “mismanages the internal affairs of the country and also uses provocative language in foreign policy. His government is intervening in the economy more than before,” Mr. Rezaie said.

Iranian polls put Mr. Rezaie last among the top four candidates. A poll last week of Tehran University students gave Mr. Rezaie 2.2 percent; Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate cleric, 2.7 percent; Mr. Ahmadinejad 34.6 percent; and Mr. Mousavi 42 percent, with the remainder undecided.

But there is talk that Mr. Mousavi, who served as prime minister during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war while Mr. Rezaie ran the Guards, might name prospective Cabinet members before June 19 to unify opposition to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The proposed members might be Mr. Rezaie as defense minister and Mohammad Javad Zarif, a former Iranian deputy foreign minister and ambassador to the United Nations who has sought better ties with the U.S., as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator.

However he performs in the elections, Mr. Rezaie will remain an influential figure. Although he was removed from leadership of the Guards in 1997 after 16 years of running the elite force, he is the second in charge of the Expediency Council. The council is a group of about three dozen senior figures that resolves disputes among government branches.

In contrast with the populist Mr. Ahmadinejad, who prides himself on a modest personal lifestyle, Mr. Rezaie has become wealthy and is involved in numerous business ventures that grew out of his leadership of the Guards and his upbringing in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province.

“Rezaie is no more a Sepahi,” a member of the Sepah or Guards, said Reza Kazema, a former member of the Guards and veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, speaking by phone from Tehran. “He lost his way and acted as an opportunist who is after stuffing his pockets or looking to have a bigger share of the cake of power.”

“On his Web site, you see a lot of old photos showing him with the Supreme Leader [then President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], the late Imam [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini at the war front,” said a Tehran University professor who asked to be identified only by his first name, Massoud. “That is good, but people do not vote for past. They vote for future.”

Hassan Mohebbi said he spent his youth working for Guard commanders who now live in mansions in best areas of Tehran while he is struggling to pay his daughter’s university tuition.

His wife, Fatemeh, said she could not forget the fact that Mr. Rezaie’s son, Ahmad, fled to the United States in 1998 and gave interviews revealing “corruption and misuse of Iran’s resources for their own interests.”

Ahmad Rezaie later returned to Iran; perhaps not coincidentally, his father’s views toward the U.S. appeared to shift around that time.

Once an anti-U.S. firebrand, Mr. Rezaie has evolved into a pragmatic if blunt advocate of a grand bargain with Washington. In a 2006 interview in Tehran — when U.S. forces were struggling to deal with a raging insurgency in Iraq — he offered the Bush administration a stark choice.

This was “a golden time for the Americans” to resolve differences with Iran, he said. “This needs bravery, and the U.S. government should not be afraid.”

But if the United States “decides on harsh measures, everything would be changed overnight and there would be serious problems” for the U.S. in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories, he warned.

In the e-mail interview, he praised President Obama as “fundamentally different than [George W.] Bush” and repeated his offer of a “package deal that includes mutual changes” in U.S. and Iranian policies without also repeating his previous threats.

Mr. Rezaie said he would try to solve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program by “creating a consortium in Iran with the participation of our neighbours and the West. This would be in a form of stockholders’ company and would sell peaceful nuclear products to Iran and other countries.”

Former U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering and Jim Walsh, nuclear specialist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have proposed such a consortium — under heavy foreign supervision — to produce fuel for civilian nuclear power plants. Iran has so far rejected U.S. and U.N. demands that it suspend its current uranium-enrichment program.

Mr. Rezaie’s ability to take part in talks with Americans outside Iran could be complicated by his past leadership of the Guards. He headed the organization when it helped create Hezbollah — a Lebanese group thought to be responsible for the deaths of 241 Americans at a military base in Beirut in 1983 and the killing and kidnapping of more than a dozen other Americans across Lebanon. He was also Guards chief when Hezbollah - with Iranian help — bombed Jewish centers in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, killing more than 110 people, in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of a Hezbollah leader in Lebanon. And he was still in charge when Iran-backed Saudis bombed the Khobar Towers barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing 19 U.S. airmen.

As a result of the 1994 Argentina bombing, Interpol, the international law enforcement organization, put Mr. Rezaie on its “red notice” list in 2007, recommending his extradition for trial. Mr. Rezaie now travels outside the region at his peril.

In the e-mail interview, however, he said: “The Argentine case is all lies. Last year, I traveled to several countries.”

He added in another possible rationale for his candidacy: “Heads of states and diplomats are protected against such warnings.”

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