Iran president looks shaky on home ground

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The Independent Online
For a man whose career is said to be in terminal decline, Iran's President, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, looked chipper. He never flagged during nearly three hours of questions at the ritual annual meeting with foreign journalists yesterday. Some questions he dodged.

Did he personally watch satellite television? He replied he was too busy. He denied Iran was holding Ron Arad, the Israeli airman shot down over Lebanon, and asked why reporters never enquired about four Iranians seized by Israel in Lebanon.

On Britain, he was reluctant to allow relations to deteriorate. 'We see no need to take the first step in severing relations . . . severing ties will not change anything. We will not benefit from cutting ties.' But he accused the British press of waging a propaganda war and denied links with the provisional IRA. 'There are no ties between the IRA and Iran. (The Irish Question) is an issue between the British and Irish governments.'

He said allegations that Iranian officials were behind the assassination of Iranian dissidents in Germany, France and Italy had not been proven. He said there was no evidence Iran backed Islamic militants in Egypt or Algeria. The export of the revolution meant the promotion of ideas, 'not interference in any country'. Asked about nuclear ambitions, he restated Iran's position, that 'we do not aim at having a nuclear weapon'.

In discussing domestic issues, he showed signs of losing control. He said he would not seek to amend the constitution to win a third term in office. And there were signs some ministers were working independently of him.

For some time Iranians have suggested the President is losing out to the Majlis (parliament), and to the religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Seyyid Khamenei. He appears to be undergoing a slow death. Two elements of the necrotising process are an increasingly assertive radical clericalism, and a rapidly deterioriating economy.

There are rumours of resignation threats and cases of corruption in the President's family. His brother was recently dismissed as head of broadcasting. Yesterday the President declared he was at one with the country's spiritual leader. Yet the division of roles between them has not worked. Power has gradually accumulated in the hands of Ayatollah Khamenei, who has become the leading personality of the regime.

Not long ago President Rafsanjani was being courted as a pragmatist with whom the West could do business. The Americans identified him as a moderate during the 1986 attempt to trade arms for hostages. Many of the problems facing the country are of the government's making. The reforms are less at fault than poor implementation. The government has also had bad luck. Oil prices have remained stubbornly low.

The obvious heir apparent is the speaker of the Majlis, Ayatollah Nateq Nouri. But he might not wish to follow President Rafsanjani. The clergy might feel it is best to disassociate itself from government at a time of economic difficulties, and he might have decided greater power resides with the speaker.

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