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Rafsanjani sings swan song with a human touch

Robert Fisk hears the former Iranian president's reflections on his eight years as leader
It was Ali Akbar Rafsanjani's swan song and he was enjoying it. No, he wouldn't say if he had voted for Ayatollah Mohammed Khatemi, who was elected President by an astonishing two-thirds of Iranians on Friday. He was supposed to be neutral, wasn't he?

The apple cheeks glowed, the Billy Bunter fringe peeped as mischievously as ever from beneath the turban, the hands played as usual with the green worry-beads, tongue just occasionally moistening his lips when the questions got a little too near the mark.

Was President Khatemi's government going to respond to the vote of youth and women for change and modernism, he was asked? The tongue flicked over the lips again. It would "make no sense" to interpret the vote of young Iranians as a protest against the previous government, he said. "If you look at the statements by different candidates, you can see their emphasis on...the preservation of the system."

This was being economical with the truth. The voters gave their support to Hojatolislam Rafsanjani's 54-year-old successor because he was offering new interpretations of an Islamic republic and some real hope of freedom of speech, not the preservation of any "system".

But Mr Rafsanjani is to be an influential figure looming over Mr Khatemi's cabinet, a member of the Council of Expediency which will "advise" the government on policies and arbitrate on differences emerging from the majlis (parliament) - most of whose conservative clerical members were opposed to Mr Khatemi's candidature.

So was all this a message to Iran's new president, a reminder that new brooms should sweep slowly?

Mr Khatemi moved between humour and melancholy. When a Chinese journalist asked a four-minute question - about youth votes, aspirations and government responsiveness - Mr Rafsanjani gave the man a withering smile and muttered: "Since China is a big country, I suppose the questions are bound to be the same."

He also looked a little tired - cheeks hanging lower than usual - as he talked to journalists, with unusual candour, of the more depressing moments of his eight years as president.

The "bitter experiences" would include the Taleban's victory in Afghanistan, he said, the lack of political progress in negotiations with the neutral Gulf states and the "continuing status of Palestine". At one point, commenting on the disputes between the Arab Gulf nations and Iran, he ruminated on the large US military presence in the region, adding wistfully that "unfortunately, the problem is that the Gulf is now neither Persian nor Arab, because it has become an American Gulf."

He was no less reflective when asked by an American journalist whether Iran was buying chemical weapons from China, the latest claim against Tehran to come from the State Department. It was false, he said, but then drifted off into his memories of gas warfare during the conflict with Iraq.

"We have had such a malevolent experience of the use of chemical weapons that we would never want to have or use them. At the time, I was the sole commander of the war, and we were fighting in the [Iraqi Kurdish] Halabja area - and I witnessed such terrible scenes, I could never forget them. The people of Halabja co-operated with us and didn't fight us and so Saddam was angry and resorted to the advanced chemical weapons he had received from Germany and used them against those people."

Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons at Halabja is well-known - and the reference to Germany was a sharp dig at the country which has just accused Iran's spiritual leader of organising the murder of exiled opposition leaders. But there was something all too real about the way Mr Rafsanjani opened his arms wide, remembering how "the chemicals went over long distances and hung down over the ground and when anyone even smelt the substance, they died. I saw such awful things there, and I hope this scene will never be repeated in any country."

There were other clues to the man's personality; a suggestion that, yes, women might be given ministerial portfolios in a future government - a sop to Mr Khatemi, perhaps - and a long diatribe about the Iranian prisoners- of-war still believed to be in Iraqi captivity. "We are really sorry for those people who have been kept as POWs in Iraqi prisons for many years. We think there are about 5,000 of our POWs in Iraqi hands. But after a while the Iraqi government said there were no more POWs with them and from that time onwards, we have not received any information about the fate of those prisoners. Their families are waiting to hear. Kuwait also has the same problem with Iraq..."

It was Mr Rafsanjani who had to persuade Ayatollah Khomeini to end the eight-year war with Iraq in 1988. "I have drunk from the cup of poison," the old man told Mr Rafsanjani then. Nevertheless, the departing president revealed yesterday that the Iranians were to send an invitation to Saddam to the forthcoming Islamic summit in Tehran. No one dared ask what he would do if the world-famous "Beast of Baghdad" decided to make an appearance.