Tehran — A popular joke in Tehran tells of a drive taken by three of the most important figures in Iran's government: parliament Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani, President Ali Khamenei, and Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi. At a fork in the road, the driver asks which way to turn. The President says, ``right,'' reflecting his position on the political spectrum. The prime minister says, ``left,'' symbolizing his politics. Then Mr. Rafsanjani says, ``Signal left, then turn right.''
At a crucial juncture in the revolution's history - and in his own career - Rafsanjani's ability to play to both sides of the house has once again helped him to outmaneuver rival theocrats.
Despite the damage done by his links to the arms-for-hostage deal with the United States, Rafsanjani still sets the rules for the political game in which other politicians' fortunes have fluctuated, often according to their relationship with the wily Speaker, diplomats and analysts here say.
Two recent events help explain the unusual inner workings of Iran's leadership - and the staying power of Rafsanjani, considered most likely to lead the next phase of Iran's revolution.
The first was the dissolution in June of the dominant Islamic Republic Party, of which Rafsanjani and President Khamenei were founding members. In recent years, Mr. Khamenei had crafted the party apparatus into his bastion of support.
As factionalization began to divide the party, Rafsanjani criticized its problems in an unusual public laundering. He and others then orchestrated a move to abolish it, on grounds that further discord had to be avoided and that the party had gained its goal of mobilizing support after the 1979 revolution. The bottom line, however, was that the rug was pulled out from under the President.
The second was the trial this month of Mehdi Hashemi, a cleric and a prot'eg'e of Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Imam Khomeini's designated successor and another Rafsanjani rival.
Mr. Hashemi's arrest last fall on charges of murder, treason, and sabotage was seen as a victory for the Speaker in his attempt to challenge Ayatollah Montazeri. In the midst of the arms deal, it was also a crucial signal to the US that Iran was winding down its support of terrorism, for Hashemi was head of the umbrella group of extremists linked with bombings and attacks through the Middle East, intelligence sources say.
In the short term, Hashemi's followers got their revenge by leaking information to a Beirut weekly about the arms-for-hostage swap with the US. The move was also an attempt to discredit the Speaker.
But despite the threat of an investigation and behind-the-scenes pressure, Rafsanjani held out. A key ally was Khomeini's son, Ahmed, who has political ambitions of his own. The two have formed a powerful team over the past three years, often presenting faits accomplis to the Imam for his ``approval'' - too late to be changed, diplomats and local analysts claim.
The Speaker may now be having the last word, for the long-delayed Hashemi trial before a special religious court was wrapped up last week. Repeated attempts by Montazeri to intervene were apparently ignored.
If Hashemi is found guilty - as is expected - Rafsanjani will have further eroded Montazeri's clout in the jockeying for position in the post-Khomeini era.
Rafsanjani's rank of hojatolislam makes him only a middle-ranking mullah, and thus unlikely in the short term to be eligible to inherit Khomeini's title of ``supreme jurisprudent.'' But Rafsanjani has, over seven years as parliamentary Speaker, built up a multifaceted power base - a prerequisite to avoid being challenged by other politicians in what is still an insecure stage of the revolution. That power base will probably provide the leverage to control the running of daily government.
Imprisoned under the Shah for dissident activities, Rafsanjani was given a place on the secret Revolutionary Council that oversaw the transition from a monarchy to a theocracy. He is one of two Khomeini appointees to the Supreme Defense Council, which runs the war against Iraq. And he won a seat to the Council of Experts, which will oversee the post-Khomeini transition, in a national election.
Rafsanjani also has close links with both the intelligence services and the Revolutionary Guards, which he once briefly headed. The Speaker has placed relatives and friends in pivotal positions. His brother runs Iran's state-controlled television, on which Rafsanjani frequently appears.
In effect, he is the only major politician to have solidly bridged the gap between revolutionary organizations and conventional state institutions. Divisions between the two are at the heart of Iran's current power struggle.
Equally important are his skills as a power broker and public speaker.
During times of dispute, such as that between Khameini and Prime Minister Musavi over a new Cabinet in 1985, the Speaker often organizes a compromise. In that case, both men ended up in his debt.
He is also the most engaging of the theocracy's usually severe public figures. At last Friday's prayers in Tehran, the Muslim sabbath speech monitored worldwide as an indicator of Iran's political direction, he even drew laughter from the faithful.
For ardent revolutionaries, Rafsanjani's main drawback may be that he is moving fast in what is, in their eyes, the wrong direction. He has said that women have a right to higher education and work outside the home. And he has criticized some of the more brutal penalties of Islamic justice.
In foreign policy, he has publicly warned against ``adventurism'' in the seven-year Gulf war. This posture, widely interpreted as opposition to long-term occupation of Iraq, alienates those who favor ensuring that Iraq becomes another Islamic republic.
And as early as 1983, Rafsanjani first hinted at possible rapprochement with the US, which it is still believed he eventually wants, analysts say. The aborted arms deal and the recent US deployment in the Gulf have led many Iranians to suspect Washington's real intentions.
As the public mood in Tehran has distinctly changed to a more militant track, so has Rafsanjani. At last Friday's prayers he rather conspicuously leaned on an assault rifle as he launched into an anti-American sermon.
But because he is the politician with the most well-defined long-term agenda, many diplomats and local analysts suggest that he may only be signaling left while still planning to eventually turn right.
Third of four articles.
Robin Wright is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.