Move over Khatami. Rafsanjani Wants Your Job

Iran’s hard-liners are about to dispose of the last fig leaf and tip the mild Mohammed Khatami out of the president’s seat. Emboldened by their parliamentary election victory, they are ready to seal the absolute rule of their Islamic revolution by re-installing the former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. At present he is chairman of the powerful Expediency Council. His appointment is seen by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iranian experts as placing a seasoned, politically adroit mediator in position to mediate between the pragmatic and hard-line conservatives vying for influence in the new parliament.

Secret discussions are in progress on the ways the smooth changeover of presidents is to be accomplished. For the moment, Rafsanjani denies any ambitions to return to the presidential post he held between 1989 and 1997, although, according to our sources, he is the driving force in the conspiracy to oust Khatami. This was how he put it in a recent interview: “If they twist my arm, I will offer myself up for candidacy.”

The incumbent has only 15 months to run until the end of his second and, under the Iranian constitution, final term. He has proved to be the lamest of ducks, helpless to stop the pulverization of his reformist camp and loss of 120 of its 160 seats in the previous parliament. Thousands of reformist candidates were disqualified from running for election. Now the Iranian judiciary is taking revenge on the reformist legislators who protested their disqualification and ventured to petition Supreme Ruler Ali Khamenei for more freedom and democracy in Iran. Indictments are under preparation for the 119 members of the outgoing legislature who participated in demonstrations or made speeches critical of the regime.

A month ago, Khamenei described Iran’s situation as critical and declared the reformist opposition had to be crushed, signaling the countdown to the end of Khatami’s stay in the presidential palace. The most effective way to unseat him under consideration is activation of the fundamentalists’ new overwhelming majority in the new Majlis to depose him in quasi-parliamentary stages.

The first would be a block no-confidence vote in the interior minister, Hojjat-Ol-Eslam Abdol-Vahed Moussavi Lari, for the sin of standing up to the Council of Guardians and fighting hard against its illicit tactics for guaranteeing the conservatives’ victory. He even approached provincial governors and city mayors asking them to quit in protest against the rigged election.

He would not be the only one. There is talk in Teheran of bringing down additional recalcitrant members of Khatami’s cabinet by similar no-confidence motions. If his key ministers were forced out of office, Khatami himself would have to step down.

At a secret meeting with the president, the leaders of three reformist parties urged him not to wait to be kicked out but to save face and resign now. But Khatami who is a waverer turned them down.

“I have no intention of quitting,” he said. “Presidential authority may be shaky but I have many tasks to finish before I go.”

To buy time, he decided to withdraw two pieces of legislation he had presented to parliament 18 months ago. The Council of Guardians blocked their passage on grounds that the bills ran contrary to Islamic tenets and the Islamic Republic’s constitution. One draft aimed at limiting the omnipotent Council of Guardians' prerogatives to select or disqualify electoral candidates. It was to take effect in 2008. The other bill was designed to expand the president’s oversight authority.

When he saw he had waited in vain for his bills’ enactment and they would never be allowed to pass, he withdrew them.

In any case, he has run out of resources to help the persecuted members of his faction. The judicial authority headed by Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi has begun spinning the wheels for drawing up indictments against hundreds of legislators, journalists, writers and philosophers. There will be a clean sweep, but charges will be filed in batches to keep a low profile and avoid protests at home and abroad.

The coup in the works to bring Rafsanjani to power takes place alongside and despite mounting popular opposition to the government. Bloody protests erupted this week over the election results in Fereydoun-Kenar, a city south of the Caspian Sea. At least five people were killed, dozens were injured and hundreds arrested. Similar protests broke out in several other cities.

Earlier, Iranian security forces in western Iran opened fire in a number of cities on Kurds celebrating the endorsement of Iraq’s Provisional Constitution and its recognition of Kurdish autonomy rights in northern Iraq. At least 10 people were killed.

With unrest in the air, Iranian conservatives are proceeding warily with the changeover to entrench themselves in power. Applying both carrot and stick, they turned a blind eye to celebrations of the pre-Islamic Festival of Fire this month. In former years, hundreds of youngsters were arrested for carrying out its rites. This year, only a handful was detained.

Iranian television, an important fundamentalist mouthpiece, has had a makeover in recent weeks. It is broadcasting more variety shows – even allowing singers to croon tepid love songs in the style of Iranian entertainers exiled in Los Angeles.

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