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Iran tycoon may have to dump Mercedes for presidency

Hardline media critical of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani splice images of him ensconced in a gleaming Mercedes with shots of another heavyweight candidate, Saeed Jalili, driving a locally assembled Kia Pride with, well, pride. Michael Theodoulou reports

One of Iran's wealthiest men might have to wave a wistful goodbye to his armour-plated Mercedes if he wants to become president.

Hardline media critical of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have spliced images of him ensconced in a gleaming Mercedes with shots of another heavyweight candidate, Saeed Jalili, driving a locally assembled Kia Pride with, well, pride.

The unspoken message: Mr Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, is a humble man of the people who drives a working-class car, while Mr Rafsanjani represents the pampered elite at a time of mounting economic pain.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's outgoing president, has also played on his image as the common man to great effect. Until two years ago he owned a battered 1977 Peugeot 504, which he then auctioned off to raise money for a low-income housing project. An anonymous bidder paid nearly US$2.5 million (Dh9m) for the jalopy that would have fetched just $1,200 on the open market.

The final list of who can contest the June 14 election is expected to be released tomorrow by the Guardian Council, an unelected hardline body that is vetting the nearly 700 hopefuls who signed up this month. Only a handful will make it onto the final ballot.

Mr Rafsanjani, a 79-year-old cleric, angered the conservative establishment by speaking out against the crackdown against the reformist movement that challenged Mr Ahmadinejad's "stolen" re-election four years ago.

Mr Jalili, 48, meanwhile, is increasingly emerging as the establishment's favourite, known for his unswerving loyalty to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Rejecting Mr Rafsanjani's candidacy will be difficult, however. He is a founding father of the Islamic republic and has served twice as president. Instead, hardliners are expected to try to discredit him during the short election campaign.

One obvious target will be his wealth, originally based on having a near monopoly of the lucrative pistachio trade. Mr Rafsanjani owns a palatial family abode in upscale north Tehran and was featured in the Millionaire Mullahs section of the Forbes Rich List in 2003.

There have been persistent accusations that he amassed his fortune thanks to his political connections - allegations that he has always denied.

Without mentioning Mr Rafsanjani by name, the chairman of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, declared last Friday that the next president should lead a simple life. "He can't go around in a Mercedes … and expect people to live modestly," he said pointedly.

"He must lead a simple life. He should start with himself," Mr Jannati added. "If his clothing is simple, if his house is simple, his furniture is simple, he can expect others to have a simple life."

Mr Ahmadinejad ticked all those boxes yet still fell afoul of Iran's old guard because of his huge ambition and grandstanding on the global stage.

By contrast, Mr Jalili is a low-key figure who shuns the limelight. He even insists on lugging his own suitcases on high-profile trips abroad.

Using an automotive metaphor, he yesterday compared the Ahmadinejad government to a "decrepit car". If elected president, Mr Jalili said, his first task would be to "remove all those obstacles that are slowing the car down on the road".

But will his Kia Pride beat Mr Rafsanjani's Mercedes?

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

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