Sunday, May 22, 2005

TIME - Joe Klein: Iran's Pragmatic Face (Interesting Appraisal of Rafsanjani)

TIME - Joe Klein: Iran's Pragmatic Face: "Iran's Pragmatic Face
Did Iran benefit most from Bush's Middle East Policy?

Sunday, May. 22, 2005
Iraq apologized to Iran last week. It acknowledged Saddam Hussein's role in provoking the devastating eight-year war between the two countries in the 1980s. This is an extraordinary gesture, and perhaps a provocative one. No doubt Iraq's Sunnis were not thrilled by either the apology or the blatant Shi'ite bonding that accompanied the diplomatic visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to Baghdad. Nor was the Bush Administration comforted by Kharrazi's meeting with Iraq's de facto leader, the Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani in Najaf. Sistani has never met with a U.S. official.

Is it possible that Iran is the country that has benefited most from President Bush's Middle East policy? It's an argument I've heard in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the past year—and also in Israel, where fear of Iranian intentions has become something of a mania. The argument goes like this: the U.S. has eliminated Iran's two neighboring enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Although the U.S. Army is camped out on Iran's eastern and western borders, it is an exhausted, overstretched army. After a period of hawkish puffery in Washington, most military experts—even those in the Bush Administration—believe that a full-bore invasion of Iran would be extremely difficult, and very unwise absent the most flagrant provocation. If the mullahs decide that the development of a nuclear bomb is their highest priority, there may not be much we can do to stop them.

But Iran is a confusing place, even to many Iranians, who tend to laugh about the perversity of their political system. The government is shadowy and redundant, with all sorts of factions, secular and religious, competing for power. A lunatic paralysis prevails, which makes it unlikely that Iran will be able to exploit its newfound prominence in the region. Any pretense of democracy seemed to evaporate in 2004, when most of the reform majority in the parliament was blocked from running for re-election by the ruling mullahs ...

And yet, a year later, Iran is in the midst of a raucous presidential election, scheduled for June 17, in which major issues—like rapprochement with the U.S.—are being debated freely in the press.

"We've never had an election like this," a political scientist named Hadi Semati told me. "It is quite possible no one will win a majority and we will have a runoff for the first time."

The favorite is former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, but he is only running in the mid-20s in the polls. (Yes, there are polls, of a sort, in Iran.) The reformist candidate Mustafa Moin is not very strong or appealing. And the conservatives are divided. The "revolutionary" generation—that is, those who came to power with the Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979—have formally backed Ali Larijani, but he is limping along with less than 5% support. The younger "war" generation—those who fought against Iraq—is supporting former police chief Mohammed Ghalibaf, who may emerge as Rafsanjani's main rival. There are seven other candidates, including an Iranian-American professor from Rutgers.

Rafsanjani has long been Iran's most clever politician. He has impeccable revolutionary credentials, strong ties to the bazaari community—he comes from a wealthy pistachio-growing family—and a history of byzantine dealings with reformers and hard-liners, which is why neither side trusts him very much. But Rafsanjani's ambidexterity gives him an excellent chance to build the coalition necessary to succeed in a second round.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Rafsanjani's candidacy is his platform: he wants to "solve the American problem"—that is, find a way to re-establish diplomatic relations with the U.S. and rejoin the world community. Not even departing reform President Mohammed Khatami has been so publicly candid about the need to deal with the Great Satan, but this has been an intermittent 30-year campaign for Rafsanjani. In the mid-'80s, he was the Iranian "moderate" who received the infamous key-shaped cake and a Bible signed by Ronald Reagan, which signaled the beginning of negotiations in the Iran-contra arms- for-hostages deal. As President in the 1990s, he tried to break the ice by offering Conoco a $1 billion deal to develop the Iranian oil fields—an offer unceremoniously rejected by the Clinton Administration. "Rafsanjani will have secret talks going with the Americans within three months after he takes office," says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University.

But what is there to talk about? I was at Tehran University when Rafsanjani rhapsodized about the need for an "Islamic bomb" in December 2001. If he thinks U.S.-Iranian commerce and the nuclear program can proceed on separate tracks, he's bound to be disappointed. Still, Rafsanjani is a dealmaker, first and last. It seems to run in the family. I interviewed his brother Mohammed in 2001, and after a long discussion of Iranian politics, I asked if he had any questions about the U.S. He immediately raised the question of the Caspian Sea oil reserves. "I understand Dick Cheney likes our pipeline route," he said. Hmm ... but before we talk, give up your nukes."