For a man who has spent nearly a decade out of the spotlight, Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani still knows how to make an entrance. Arriving for an interview with TIME inside a domed marble Tehran palace, Rafsanjani, 70, strides in with the bounce of a man half his age. He's even accompanied by his film crew. It's all part of a slick campaign aimed at selling one of the Islamic republic's old founding fathers as a hip reformer in tune with restless young Iranians, in hopes of returning the former President to the job he left in 1997. As he settles into a gilt-trimmed chair, he says he may do a campaign commercial with the Iranian director of the recent film The Lizard, a huge hit that poked rare fun at the righteous clerics who form Iran's ruling class. "It's an idea," Rafsanjani says. "There is no script yet." He laughs when told that his son Mehdi has already jokingly come up with a title for the spot: "The Lizard II."
It might as well be "Rafsanjani: The Sequel." With Iranians set to go to the polls beginning next week for the first presidential election since 2001, Rafsanjani is poised--but with a 36% showing in opinion surveys, not guaranteed--to win a third term as President, having served twice from 1989 to 1997. Known as Iran's most cunning political actor, he has positioned himself as the most palatable compromise candidate in the eight-man race, a centrist who can act as a bridge between Iran's hard-line conservatives and its disillusioned reformers. At the same time, he is projecting a conciliatory line toward the U.S. and its European allies, with whom the Iranian regime is engaged in a high-stakes diplomatic showdown over the country's nuclear ambitions.
In an hourlong interview with TIME, Rafsanjani brushes aside the enmity that has characterized U.S.-Iranian relations since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and intensified since President George W. Bush inducted Iran into the "axis of evil" in 2002. "We don't have any problems with the people and the country of the United States," he says, adding that if the U.S. releases Iranian assets in America--billions of dollars have been frozen since 1979--"it is possible to end hostilities." Says Rafsanjani: "Whenever there has been an opportunity for reasonable cooperation, we've seized it."
Given the Islamic republic's two-year cat-and-mouse game with the U.S., European Union and U.N. over Iran's nuclear program, the world has reason to be skeptical of Rafsanjani's emollience. Iranian and European negotiators averted a possible crisis last month in Geneva when Iran agreed to shelve plans to resume uranium-enrichment activities in exchange for a European pledge to present a detailed package of economic incentives after Iran's presidential election. Rafsanjani--who stepped up Iran's nuclear efforts in the '90s with the construction, assisted by the Russians, of the Bushehr power plant--says he supports the talks but warns the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) against dragging them out. He told TIME that Iran will eventually restart work toward completing the nuclear-fuel cycle--insisting, as the Iranians long have, that the intent is to produce energy for civilian use.