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Elections, Iranian Style

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an architect of the Revolution, two-term President of the Islamic Republic (1989 -97), and for over 30 years one of the most powerful men in Iran, has been banned from running in the coming elections.

It was another slap in his face.

I never doubted that this one-time head of the Assembly of Experts who resigned in 2011, would be rejected by the Supreme Leader as he and his family have been under scrutiny and criticism and even suffered imprisonment by the hardliners since the last elections.

The Rafsanjani clan has enormous economic and political clout. They have been involved in the petrochemical industry, the Tehran metro, the Islamic Azad universities, and pistachio production. Hashemi's sons have had lucrative businesses from Canada to Tehran.

Throughout the years and before falling out of favor, Rafsanjani was instrumental in deciding who would run and who would not. After Khomeini's death, he was the one who arranged for Khamenei to become the Supreme Leader. Yet, none of that loyalty seems to have worked in his favor.

A shrewd politician and a good businessman, a pragmatist at heart, and a visionary in his own right, he wants to rescue the Republic by opening it up. That is why back in 1997, he pushed Mohammad Khatami to run, during whose term Iranians enjoyed relative freedom.

A reason given for Rafsanjani's disqualification is his age. The average age among the Ayatollahs is around 80, and age is not a valid constitutional reason to disqualify a candidate. The real reason why he was rejected has to do with his possible rapprochement with the West and his indirect support of the Green movement and its arrested leaders. He has now become a "fetnegar" (rebel rouser) as labeled by the hardliners who fear that Rafshanjani might win in a landslide.

Given the eight-year disastrous domestic and foreign policy of the populist Ahmadi Nejad, leading to an economy devastated by crippling sanctions and a currency in free-fall, a boost in the economy and a more open society is what Iranians desperately need and want.

It stands to reason that anyone who might ease the suffering of ordinary people and who has the potential to thwart an Israeli attack should receive popular support.

To feel sorry for Rafsanjani as one reads these days on most major websites is an exaggeration -- but then again, Iranian politics has always been about exaggeration and uncertainties.

Rafsanjani is the very victim of what he created and installed some three decades ago. Instead, one should have empathy for Iran and Iranians who have no say in the choices made for them. Seventy million people, half of whom are young and educated, are told, this is it, love it or leave it if you can.

It is a caricature of an election, to put it mildly.

Rafsanjani is the Iranian version of the Godfather who has turned into a kind father figure with a shady past. Under his presidency, a number of well-known opposition figures were arrested and jailed and suffered torture. They were nationalists or religious-nationalists who had no intention of rocking the boat. Instead, they wrote a letter imploring him to take a different route. That was in 1990. He didn't listen to their cries. "Of the 90 prominent signatories, 23 were arrested," said a former prisoner.

Some are not alive today to witness the change of heart.

While Rafsanjani was president, one of Iran's most renowned writers, Saeidi Sirjani, was murdered under suspicious circumstances. Former PM Shapur Bakhtiar was stabbed to death in Paris.

Rafshanjani was also implicated in the Mykonos affair, which led a German court to indict him and others in absentia. Now, in his late seventies, he has mellowed. Political figures who begin their careers as ruthless revolutionaries often become "compassionate" politicians in old age. Back in the old days, the new revolutionaries were busy executing their foes, some of whom were Mr. Rafsanjani's cell mates during the Pahlavi regime.

Yet, with growing disenchantment with the current state of affairs, high inflation and staggering prices, those who once opposed Mr. Rafsanjani would have welcomed his candidacy. They saw him as a light in the darkness.

Khamenei's message to his old friend was clear: I still hold all the cards. Apparently the Supreme Leader's son, Mojtaba -- a cleric himself -- has become his ears and eyes.

When I called a friend in Iran, he was clearly disappointed. I asked, "So who is going to win the elections?" he said, "Most likely Mr. Jalili." Saeid Jalili has been the chief nuclear negotiator in the last six years. He is really the "messenger" without much power. Whether he will win or not remains a mystery, for this is a Republic whose fate is ultimately determined by a few bearded old men.

Whoever wins, it is unlikey that Iran will move toward total totalitarianism as some analysts predict. Iranian society does not have the ingredients to evolve into a totalitarian state.

On June 14, 2013, whoever is elected has no choice but to bring Iran out of isolation if this ancient land of Cyrus the Great is to survive. How likely is that? Who will do it? Let's wait and see. That is all we can do.

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