From the depths of Iran's political malaise, one name keeps floating to the top as presidential elections slated for June 17 edge closer: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The former president and chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, who has been the center of political gravity more than any other politician since the 1979 Islamic revolution, has not yet stated that he will run.
Still, as if by default, Mr. Rafsanjani is being hailed by some as a pragmatic conservative who alone can bridge vicious political divides and steer Iran through foreign crises that range from its nuclear program to forging détente with the United States.
"Rafsanjani is the only one capable of containing radicalism and crises without creating new crises - a very important skill for the next four years," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political scientist at Tehran University.
But Rafsanjani also has enemies, especially among hard-liners, who analysts say could block the veteran politician, just as they have tied the hands of the once-popular President Mohamad Khatami.
"It's a disaster!" says one veteran political observer in Tehran, decrying the lack of viable choices. "We [Iranians] have dropped so far that it takes this one man to come and use his considerable power to bring us back together."
"It's not to say there is enthusiasm for anyone," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "The idea of a savior is there ... but I'm not sure Rafsanjani is as capable as before. He has lost some [influence] with the Revolutionary Guard.... They feel he's ... moved away from martyrdom and revolution."
Reformist voters who twice gave landslide victories of up to 79 percent to Mr. Khatami - and a clear mandate for change - are now so disillusioned that they may not bother to vote at all.
Hard-liners, smelling victory for their strategy of minimizing turnout - which has already brought the Tehran city council and parliament into fundamentalist hands - have chosen Ali Larijani, former state broadcast chief and now security adviser to the supreme leader, as their candidate, though other hard-line hopefuls are in the lineup.
Reform candidates are less charismatic than Khatami, and must get through a strict ideological vetting process. But the prospect of a hard-line victory may prompt an unlikely alliance between reformists and moderate conservatives, experts say, to back Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani said last month he is "completely ready" to run if no other "capable and popular person is found."
Still, he must weigh past charges of corruption and links with political killings that led voters to rebuke him in the race for the 2000 parliament, or Majlis. Rafsanjani received the fewest votes of 30 candidates elected from Tehran, and gave up his seat two days before the first session. "The issue of corruption is still there; people will decide," says Mr. Hadian-Jazy. But many elites, who debated and destroyed him, are ready to embrace Rafsanjani despite his past."
A poll published last month, based on 32,000 questionnaires from a "government organization," found that 43 percent supported Rafsanjani - more than all others combined. Trying to head off a win by the 70-year-old Rafsanjani, hard-liners tried but failed to set an age limit for presidential contenders.
For his Iranian audience, there are frequent, vitriolic public harangues of US policy. On Sunday, Iran's official news agency reported on a speech in which Rafsanjani accused the US of waging war against Islam, and called on Muslim nations to confront America. Earlier this month, he marked the death of Pope John Paul II, saying the "world's Christians should shout in protest against the US" and tell "White House leaders that their conduct has defamed Christ."
But the message that Rafsanjani can deliver better US-Iran relations has been quietly passed from Iranian officials to Washington, setting up Rafsanjani as the one who can be trusted to negotiate on behalf of the regime, according to well-placed sources in Tehran. And in an interview with USA Today (a political risk for someone of less stature), Rafsanjani said: "I'm not the only one [who can solve the problem with the US], but I am one of them."
According to one European diplomat in Tehran, "Rafsanjani's asset is that he is a giant in a field of midgets." He notes that even the Revolutionary Guard Corps has put out a circular forbidding criticism of the former president.
"The sad thing is that all [candidates] are the generation of the revolution," the diplomat says. "There has been no evolution of people, no new names. When they die, in 10 years, there will be real change here. Until then, they will block progress."
Analysts say that Rafsanjani's past receptivity to social openness make him a target. Rafsanjani may also be seen as a threat to the supreme spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. USA Today quoted Rafsanjani's son saying that, if elected, his father would change the constitution to make that post a ceremonial one, like "the king of England" - a virtual heresy in the Islamic Republic.
"Radicals will be against every government that could take power, but if it is Rafsanjani, it will be worse than for Khatami - they hate him 1,000 times more," says Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran.
Hard-liners blame Rafsanjani's economic reforms while president, from 1989 to 1997, for creating the seeds of civil society that blossomed into the reform movement. They shouted him down during Friday prayers in 1998, forcing him to change topics when he tried to support a popular Tehran mayor under fire from hard-liners.
"The only person who matters is the supreme leader, but the only person who can influence the supreme leader is Rafsanjani," says the European diplomat. "In the end it will boil down to a historic fight for power, for the concept of the supreme leader - that's the reason all the clerics hate [Rafsanjani]."
That is also a reason why he may appeal to reformists, if he decides to run. "Some 95 percent of the power in Iran is not elected," says Mohsen Kadivar, an opposition Islamic scholar whose views have landed him in prison. "The majority of the population will vote, if they think they can choose someone who can limit the power of the supreme leader."