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Ayatollah Rafsanjani: A pragmatic cleric and savvy politician

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He stood out among Iran’s ruling establishment with only wisps of hair on his chin instead of the full beards of his clerical colleagues and revolutionary commanders, but Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was also a pragmatic, savvy politician who sought a modus vivendi with the West, and demonstrated that democracy, though imperfect, was a feature of the Islamic Republic.

Long described as the second-most powerful man in Iran (after Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whom he had supported for the post after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death) Rafsanjani, who died on Sunday at the age of 82, was among founding fathers of Iran’s Revolution and Islamic Republic.

Born on August 25, 1934, in a village near the city Rafsanjan (hence his name) in Kerman province to a wealthy family of pistachio farmers, he went on to study theology in the seminary city of Qom with Khomeini, whose close lieutenant he became. (His family business continued to prosper and his wealth was recently estimated at nearly $750 million.)

Long opposing the Shah’s rule and frequently imprisoned, Rafsanjani, after the Revolution, in whose success he was involved in as finance in-charge and conduit to other opposition groups, became a prominent member of the dispensation.

Serving as the Parliament’s Speaker (1980-89), where he was a prominent voice in persuading Khomeini to end the war with Iraq, he succeeded Khamenei as President in 1989 and in his two-term tenure, led the country’s reconstruction after the ruinous and ultimately futile decade-long war, as well as restoring relations with the Arab world.

He also was the chief of the Assembly of Experts (which among other duties, selects the Supreme Leader) from 2007 to 2011 and the first and still-serving head of the the Expediency Council, which served as an advisory council to the Supreme Leader.

But his most profound achievement was as an influential and courageous supporter of people’s rights in wake of the contested 2009 presidential elections when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected.

It was a full circle for Rafsanjani, after losing the 2005 Presidential elections to Ahmadinejad, whose populist message proved more alluring to the people at large beyond the elite and middle class who had benefited during his own presidency (1989-97).

Ahead of the June 2009 election in the run-up to which Ahmadinejad had regularly attacked him and accused him of bankrolling his opponent’s campaign, he had written to Ayatollah Khamenei, seeking he “ensure that the election would be a fair one” (according to Iranian-American journalist and writer Hooman Majd’s “The Ayatollah’s Democracy”, 2010).

In wake of the results, which led to weeks of riots and repression, Rafsanjani, whom Majd described as “not one to make mistakes” and “cool and collected”, did not take any hasty decision and remained quiet.

Also the Prayer Leader of Tehran, he finally spoke his mind in his sermon after Friday prayers on July 17, 2009, to the overflowing crowd at the Tehran University Campus, ignoring any directives from Khamenei.

Rafsanjani, frequently called “Kuseh (shark)” by the irreverent Iranians due to his smooth facial features, and political acumen, did not mince any words, quoting Khomeini to stress how political legitimacy rested on people’s consent, and the sanctity of their vote was paramount.

Maintaining Iran was a “theocratic republic”, he said: “If the government is not Islamic, then we are heading nowhere. If it is not a republic, then it doesn’t amount to anything.”

He also went on, as per Majd, to call for “an open society in which people can say what they want to say”, they should not be imprisoned for it and those who were, should be freed to re-unite with their families. Scuffles broke out but his message was clear, and soon the repression can said to have eased.

Rafsanjani lost his post as head of the Assembly of Experts in 2011 (though remaining a member) but was re-appointed chief of the Expediency Council the next year. He entered the fray in the 2013 Presidential elections but his candidature was disqualified. However, his supported candidate Hasan Rouhani went on to win, confirming he continued to be a leading mover and shaker in Iranian affairs.

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New attacks in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta after UNSC resolution

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Syria airstrike attack which killed 28 civilians (photo credit Getty images )
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Damascus, Feb 25: Syrian government forces on Sunday continued their airstrikes and shelling of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of the capital Damascus, hours after the UN Security Council (UNSC) approved resolution demanding a 30-day nationwide cease-fire.

On Sunday morning, two airstrikes targeted the town of al-Shifonia, while government troops launched missiles against Harasta, Karf Badna and Jesren, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor.

Despite fighting between government troops and the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), the SOHR reported that Saturday night was the calmest in the region since the government forces intensified their attacks on Eastern Ghouta as there were no casualties.

The attacks involved the use of heavy arms and were the first to take place in al-Shifonia since February 18, when the government forces started their campaign.

Also on Sunday, six surface-to-surface missiles were launched at Harasta, four targeted Karf Badna and Jesren and another four were launched at Hamouriyah, while al-Shifonia suffered two airstrikes, according to the SOHR.

The UNSC on Saturday unanimously approved a resolution demanding a 30-day, nationwide cease-fire in Syria, including Eastern Ghouta.

Under the cease-fire deal continued military operations will be authorised against groups regarded as terrorist organisations by the UN, including the Islamic State and Nusra Front, who now call themselves Tahrir al-Sham, which the Syrian government says is present in Eastern Ghouta.

A week of intense attacks on Eastern Ghouta killed at least 510 people, including 127 minors, according to latest figures.

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Communist Party proposes to lift two-year limit on President term, Xi Jinping may get another term in office

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In a major change in China’s political scenario the Communist Party of China Central committee has proposed to remove a clause from China’s constitution which forbids the president and vice president to serve more than two consecutive terms on the post.

President Xi Jinping’s first term will end on March 5 and as he has been re-elected so he will take on the president for the second term.

The proposal was made public on Sunday, state-owned media Xinhua reported.Other than the term the central committee has also proposed to add the Xi Jinping’s “Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” to China’s Constitution.

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UNSC unanimously votes resolution ordering ceasefire in Syria

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United Nations, Feb 25: The ten elected non-permanent members (E10) of the UN Security Council pushed the five permanent members (P5) to reach a compromise and got an unanimous vote on a resolution ordering a ceasefire “without delay” in Syria to allow humanitarian aid to reach areas under siege.

After two days of delays and several postponements, Russia and the three western permanent members — Britain, France and the United States — agreed on Saturday, on the final version negotiated by Kuwait and Sweden with the backing of the P10.

Kuwait’s Permanent Representative Mansour Ayyad Al-Otaibi, who is the Council President for the month, said after the resolution passed that the unanimous vote was a “sign that the Security Council is united” and this could pave the way for finding a lasting political solution to the seven-year conflict.

Hoping to shame the permanent members locked in a standoff and push them to a compromise, all the the E10 representatives lined up together and held a news conference on Friday while the negotiations were on. “We want to show you the solidarity of the E10,” Al-Otaibi declared: “We are all united, we want the resolution to be adopted.”

The unrelenting push by Al-Otaibi and Sweden’s Permanent Representative Olof Skoog won praise from every one of the Council members. It was a rare instance of the E10 bending the P5, instead of the other way around.

Besides the nation-wide ceasefire, the resolution calls for the lifting of all sieges, facilitation of medical evacuations, and permitting convoys of the UN and its partners carrying humanitarian supplies free access.

However, the resolution made one notable exception to the ceasefire: It allowed continued action against the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, A1-Nusra Front and other terrorist organisations.

The key point of contention that held up the resolution since it was formally introduced by Kuwait and Sweden on Wednesday was the timing of when the ceasefire should start. The US demanded it should be immediate, while Russia wanted lag before it went into effect and the threat of a Moscow veto hung over it.

The resolution now says it will come into force “without delay,” leaving an element of ambiguity subject to interpretations.

Speaking to reporters after the vote, Al-Otaibi said they debated about the timing during the negotiations all of Friday and into Saturday morning. “Without delay means” immediately, he said.

Russia’s Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia was non-commital about. He told reporters that the reason his country held out on the wording of the timing was that it was logistical issue and a “painful process on the ground.”

He added that another concern of Moscow was that resolution was not used as a pretext to launch an invasion of Syria.

With the drawn-out negotiations, Syria got three days to prepare for it.

Speaking in the Council after the vote, United States Permanent Representative Nikki Haley lashed out at Russia saying that during the time it held up the resolution to change a “few words and some commas,” mothers lost their children to bombing and shelling.

“The Syrian people should not have to die waiting for Russia to organise their instructions from Moscow, or to discuss it with the Syrians,” she added.

The action on the ceasefire was precipitated situation in East Ghouta, which UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called “hell on Earth”. One of the few rebel-held territories, the Damascus suburb has been under a siege and bombed from the air by the Syrian government forces.

East Ghouta was specifically mentioned, along with several other areas, but the Kurdish city of Afrin was not. Intense fighting has been underway in the area between Turkey’s military and Kurdish militias backed by Syrian government forces.

Asked about it by reporters, Al-Otaiby said the ceasefire applied to all of Syria and to all forces operating there.

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