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Rafsanjani, ‘The Shark,’ Is Political Survivor With AM-Iran-Election

June 13, 1993

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) _ Hashemi Rafsanjani, elected for a second term as Iran’s president, is known to his countrymen as ″kuseh,″ the shark.

Some say this is because his smile and sly wit hide political ruthlessness and cunning as well as the business acumen that has made him a millionaire.

Others attribute it to his lack of facial hair, revealing his Mongolian ancestry in a nation where beards are the badge of revolutionary manhood.

Rafsanjani, 59, won a landslide victory in Friday’s elections, as he did in July 1989 when he was first elected.

But final results released Sunday showed he won with only 63 percent of the vote, and only 56 percent of the electorate turned out.

Rafsanjani’s popularity has waned drastically since 1989 because he has not been able to revive Iran’s anemic economy and improve conditions for the Islamic republic’s 60 million people.

The president, leader of Iran’s so-called pragmatists and advocate of better relations with the West, is also threatened by hard-line radicals in another of Tehran’s seemingly endless power struggles.

But he is a skilled survivor.

Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, the republic’s first president who was forced into exile in 1981, calls Rafsanjani a Machiavellian figure.

″He’s a man with a marked taste for power,″ he said. ″He’s a political animal.″

The charismatic middle-ranking cleric emerged as Iran’s strongman following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini June 3, 1989.

He is reported to have survived several assassination attempts since the 1979 Islamic revolution and to have crushed his rivals with brutal efficiency.

Since 1979, one president - Bani-Sadr - was driven into exile, one was blown up and one - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani’s predecessor - was badly wounded in a bombing in 1981.

Like many Iranian leaders, Rafsanjani moves around Tehran in an armor- plated limousine and is constantly surrounded by bodyguards.

Before becoming president, he was speaker of the Majlis, Iran’s Parliament, and dominated it since it was formed in 1980. He has built up strong support among the 350,000-strong Revolutionary Guards Corps and other power centers.

Rafsanjani was close to Khomeini throughout the patriarch’s 10 turbulent years as Iran’s leader following the revolution that toppled the shah.

Bani-Sadr said Rafsanjani would ingratiate himself with Khomeini by playing the role of court jester.

His rise was rapid under Khomeini’s mantle. He played a crucial role in giving the Islamic revolution direction through the turmoil of its early days and during the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

In June 1988, Khomeini gave him control of military affairs, charging him with reversing Iran’s battlefield defeats and welding its dispirited and fractious forces into an effective fighting machine.

Ever tuned to the popular mood, Rafsanjani had perceived a growing war- weariness and believed that continuing the conflict was futile.

Khomeini’s obsessive hatred of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a major obstacle, but Rafsanjani finally convinced Khomeini to accept a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire in July 1988.

He also sought to rebuild bridges with the West to end Iran’s isolation. To many Western leaders, he represented the more acceptable face of the Islamic revolution.

Rafsanjani was at the center of the clandestine arms-for-hostages deal with the United States in 1985-86. He used his links with Lebanon’s Shiite extremists to secure the release of all Western hostages held in Lebanon.

But he is no less committed to the revolution than his rivals.

Update hourly