TEHRAN, Iran - By Iran's official standards, this was risque television. In a rare on-air conversation last weekend with a panel of young people, 70-year- old cleric and presidential front-runner Hashemi Rafsanjani declared that Iranians should have greater freedom to choose the colors and styles of their clothes.
"Design and color depends on people's taste. ... There should at least be clothes - no nudity," the snowy-haired political veteran said to a roar of laughter.
The image, part of a half-hour campaign ad, was a very different Rafsanjani from the fiery speaker who warned a Tehran University crowd in December 2001 that an "Islamic bomb" would balance the power of Israel.
If he wins in Friday's national voting, Rafsanjani will have performed an astonishing political makeover, refashioning himself from a stalwart of the 26-year- old Islamic Revolution into a reformer capable of tackling Iran's mounting political and economic problems.
Already battling unemployment and international suspicion of its nuclear program, Iran suffered a series of deadly bombings Sunday, heightening fears about unrest in the country's southwest.
Iranians are divided on whether Rafsanjani is a changed man or simply an adept political performer with a keen interest in courting young voters. Supporters and opponents alike call him a "chameleon," and the side of his persona that prevails is likely to shape Iran's course in the years ahead.
After nearly 10 years out of the spotlight, Rafsanjani's reinvention captures the defining theme of today's Iran: the dimming fortunes of a once-flourishing reform movement.
Young are disenchanted
Eight years ago, young voters delivered a landslide to reformist President Mohammad Khatami only to grow disenchanted at his failure to overcome appointed clerics and implement liberal changes. Today, four years after their last presidential election in 2001, many voters say they are resigned to supporting a steely if less progressive figure such as Rafsanjani, on the hope that he can deliver concrete solutions to unemployment, inflation and diplomatic isolation.
"Survey 100 people and ask them what their biggest concerns are, 90 of them will say economic concerns," said Karim Sadjadpour, a Tehran-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. "It's not to say democracy and human rights aren't concerns, but economic issues are top priority."
Rafsanjani, who served as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997, has a 36 percent showing in opinion polls, a solid but not commanding lead over reformist challenger Mostafa Moin and conservative former national police chief Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf.
A high turnout among key populations, such as women and young people, would very likely boost Moin, a soft-spoken former minister, but turnout is expected to be lower than in recent elections. Campaign officials for several candidates expect a runoff because no single candidate is likely to get more than 50 percent in the first balloting.
Rafsanjani's reputation had fallen so far by 2000 that he failed to win a seat in parliamentary elections. But today, for many of those disillusioned by Khatami's unfulfilled pledges, Rafsanjani is the acceptable compromise in a field of eight, including four ultraconservatives.
"I know that Rafsanjani has good experience; he has good skills," said Amir Nafez, 38, a computer engineer in Tehran, walking in a wooded park with his wife and daughter. "We need someone strong, not like the last person."
But Rafsanjani is one of Iran's most polarizing public figures. Many people gripe that the teenagers who have come out for him - with bumper stickers advertising "Hashemi" and T-shirts calling for "No More Talk" - don't remember that, while president, he was a faithful enforcer of the Islamic Republic's strict restrictions on dress and expression. During his years in office, human-rights advocates here and abroad say, his regime was responsible for assassinating critics at home and in Europe, charges he denies.
He is a familiar face to Western diplomats. The scion of a wealthy pistachio-growing family, Rafsanjani is, above all, a deal-maker. In the mid-1980s, he played an important role in the arms-for-hostages deal to free U.S. captives from Iranian-allied militants in Lebanon.
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