Candidates challenge taboos

TEHRAN (AFP) — Two high-profile candidates for Iran’s presidency raised the stakes in their campaigns Wednesday, both evoking the taboo topic of relations with the United States and one challenging the status of the Islamic republic’s supreme leader.
“We have to democratise the political system,” said Mohammad Reza Khatami, the head of the main reformist party, which is backing the candidacy of Mostafa Moin in the June 17 election.

“In particular, we have to define the prerogatives of unelected institutions, for example Article 110 of the constitution, so that they are no longer subject to interpretation,” Reza Khatami told a news conference.

Article 110 of Iran’s constitution, put in place after the 1979 Islamic revolution, spells out the powers of the country’s supreme leader — currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Criticising the supreme leader is regarded as a serious offence. Khamenei’s status is based on a concept called the “rule of the religious jurisprudent,” which provides him with absolute power over the country.

Reza Khatami, brother of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, went on to cross another one of the regime’s so-called “red lines”: relations with the United States.

“We have to break the taboo of relations with the United States so that everyone can give their opinion,” he said in a presentation of Moin’s policies.

Iran and the United States cut off diplomatic relations in 1980, after Islamic revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 US personnel hostage for 444 days.

“We are in a difficult situation with the United States, a process is therefore necessary,” said Reza Khatami, brother of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.

These comments were also a direct challenge to Khamenei — who is technically in charge of the country’s foreign policy regardless of who is president. Khamenei is also widely seen as being totally opposed to a resumption of dialogue with the United States, branded by hardliners as the “Great Satan.”

Campaign frontrunner Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also breaking fresh ground on the topic — a sign that the big question facing the Iran’s foreign policy has emerged as a major election issue.

“If they make a positive sign, I am one of those who believe that we need to sort out this problem,” Rafsanjani said of the Americans.

“I am convinced that it is the Americans who need to show their goodwill so that relations can resume,” the top cleric and former president said in a statement.

Rafsanjani, seen as a savvy deal-maker who favours closer ties with the West, has been playing up the issue in his campaign in an apparent bid to draw support from many Iranians keen to see the US problem resolved.

His comments also came the day after he called on the 26-year-old Islamic regime to undergo a radical rethink of the way it deals with the international community and how it relates with its own burgeoning youth population. His comments were a marked departure from the usual rhetoric from a regime totally at odds with the United States and much of the international community — and also in contrast to the perceived position of Khamenei.

According to informal opinion polls in the Iranian press — to be taken with a pinch of salt — Rafsanjani currently leads the eight regime-approved candidates hoping to succeed Khatami.

Moin is seen as lagging far behind, but he is also aggressively campaigning to win back support from disenchanted former reformist voters. The campaign has been shaping up as a battle between Rafsanjani — who is presenting himself as a moderating force ready to accept change — and powerful right-wingers defending their deep-rooted revolutionary dogma.

The right-wing candidates in the race are four hardliners. Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, Ali Larijani, Mahmud Ahmadi Nejad and Mohsen Rezai are all veterans of the hardline Revolutionary Guards and seen as being ideologically closer to Khamenei.

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