Rafsanjani Walks a Precipice in Iran

The president must clean up the debris left by the Khomeini era while preserving his revolutionary credentials

SINCE the summer of 1988, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily Iranian politician whom the Western press likes to label as a ``moderate'' or ``pragmatist,'' has been on the ascendancy. His rise to power, culminating in his election last July as Iran's first president in the post-Khomeini era, has been reflected in a number of important events: Iran's acceptance in August 1988 of a cease-fire in the Gulf war, the surprisingly smooth transition after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death on June 3, the revision of the constitution, and the choice of a working Cabinet dominated by ``technocrats'' and excluding key figures of the more radical faction.

But who is Mr. Rafsanjani, what does he want, and will he be able to succeed?

President Rafsanjani is a middle-level cleric and a rich landowner (reputedly the largest pistachio grower in Iran) who has demonstrated a talent for survival through 10 years of revolution, turmoil, and war.

He has achieved this through a combination of realism, ruthlessness, and a complete lack of scruples.

Over the years, he skillfully manipulated his position as Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and his close personal relation with Ayatollah Khomeini to block potential adversaries and build short-term tactical alliances with different factions of the Islamic regime. He moved all over the political spectrum in the process.

Some myths about Rafsanjani should be dispelled. He can certainly be called a ``realist'' or a ``pragmatist,'' but the ``moderate'' label does not stick very well.

HE is certainly no liberal on the domestic political scene. He was a major force behind the brutal repression of the uprising by the left-wing Mujahedeen Khalq in 1981.

Thousands have been executed since his de facto assumption of leadership in the summer of 1988 - most of them for alleged drug-related offenses.

On the foreign policy side he has shown realism, making several attempts to end Iran's diplomatic isolation. A drive to rebuild links with the West in August 1988 was thwarted by the Salman Rushdie affair, and then by the hostage crisis in Lebanon.

He has been more successful with the Soviet Union, to which he paid an official visit in June, further enhancing his stature at home and abroad. Iranian officials have also expressed their willingness to improve relations with the country's oil-rich Arab neighbors.

Rafsanjani has attempted to use the hostage crisis in Lebanon as an instrument to reopen a dialogue with the United States on the broader issue of US-Iranian relations.

Neither the US nor Iran, however, have expressed any willingness to initiate negotiations. Nevertheless, both sides have defined general conditions for a renewal of relations.

What does Rafsanjani want? As the British news magazine The Economist put it in a recent editorial, Rafsanjani is in the same position as Mikhail Gorbachev and South African President Frederik de Klerk: ``All three have inherited a system headed toward collapse; and all three know that it has to be changed.''

Ten years of war and revolution have battered Iran's economy.

According to official data, industrial-capacity utilization stands at about 50 percent and unemployment at 17 percent. Official statistics show that prices have almost tripled since 1980. In fact, the situation is much worse.

Not only is the economy in shambles, but there is a complete lack of confidence in the government's economic policy. Furthermore, a brutal repression has had tens of thousands of victims and forced millions into exile. A senseless war has left about 1 million casualties and caused enormous material damage.

These circumstances have alienated most segments of Iranian society - even the so-called ``oppressed classes,'' which are turning away from the regime.

Thus, the major priority is economic reconstruction, without which the Islamic regime cannot expect to survive in the long term.

Rafsanjani is keenly aware of these problems. In his inaugural speech, he made the economy the key priority of his government. Economic development cannot take place in a vacuum or be achieved by fiat, however.

Iran faces immense economic problems, and the new president has to forge (or force) a political consensus on several issues: the role of foreign technology and capital, the mobilization of domestic resources, and the nature of the economic policy. However, most of the requirements for economic development, particularly the rebuilding of close economic links to the West, strengthening the private sector, and motivating Iranian exiles (who formed the economic and educated elite of the country) to return, are likely to prove very controversial in the overheated revolutionary atmosphere.

In order to achieve this very ambitious agenda, Rafsanjani needs to modify the nature of the regime, defusing its revolutionary aspects and returning it to a centralized-power model.

The task is complicated by the systematic tendency of the revolution to breed factionalism and multiple power centers. In particular, while Rafsanjani has made impressive gains in the short term, he has by no means neutralized the radical factions, who have the most to lose from a return to normalcy in domestic and external affairs.

The Iranian president is likely to attempt to achieve his goals in several ways: constitutional and institutional changes, cooperation, intimidation and elimination.

Institutional change can include further reinforcement of the presidential powers, a marginalization of the role of the ``Leader of the Revolution'' (currently Ali Khamenei, a middle-level cleric without any religious prestige), a reduction of the role of an often obstructionist and fractious Parliament (Majlis), and the centralization of control over the security force (both the regular armed forces, the police and the various militias, particularly the Revolutionary Guards).

Cooperation has already begun with the inclusion of some radicals (such as Ayatollah Nuri as minister of interior and former prime minister Moussavi as vice president) in the Cabinet.

More generally, it will mean the controlled participation of adversaries on the left and the right in the government and bureaucracy.

Finally Rafsanjani is not likely to shy away from intimidation, elimination, and wholesale purge of potential enemies.

At the same time, the new Iranian leader must ensure that his revolutionary credentials are not questioned. Any major political and social liberalization that would endanger the Islamic character of Iranian society and the monopoly of power of the mullahs and their allies is improbable.

If he succeeds, the shape of a post-revolutionary regime will be most likely authoritarian and centralized, with only mariginal social and political liberalization. While such a regime would provide political stability, it would not conform even remotely to any democratic ideal.

THE major question, though, is he will succeed? Constitutional change is not enough. The Islamic Republic's political system is a brutal one, a long way from being governed by law.

Rafsanjani faces a formidable array of adversaries, including Islamic radical factions, conservative senior clerics who were always opposed to the Islamic regime, as well as opposition forces outside the regime.

The balance of political power will ultimately be determined by the gun, and Rafsanjani is likely to face a high risk of liquidation.

Rafsanjani could, if he manages to survive, put Iran on a transitional path toward a new, more stable country. However, like Gorbachev and De Klerk, he might only succeed in unleashing uncontrollable political forces that would eventually doom the Islamic Republic.

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