Rafsanjani’s Next Move

The surprising victory of Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rowhani in the Islamic Republic’s presidential election had many on the edge of their seats. Nobody could predict his victory in a highly regime-controlled milieu and disappointing atmosphere derived from the controversial election of 2009. But in the very minute when many thought most of Iranians would call for a boycott in objection to a believed regime’s decision in determining the outcome of the election, the wave of support for Khatami and Rafsanjani was finally directed to Rowhani.
Bringing a new tone to nuclear talk and increasingly domestic economic crisis, Iran’s “Diplomat Sheikh” convinced Iranians to vote for him. Notwithstanding, he could not have been able to get this unexpectedly remarkable victory without his strategic alliance with “Man of Shadows”: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Since his defeat in the presidential election of 2005, Rafsanjani was highly criticized by the hard-liners. The acme of these verbal-practical assaults was during, and after, the controversial presidential election, June 2009, which was followed by the emergence of the Green Movement.
However, Ayatollah Khamenei’s nuclear strategy and Ahmadinejad’s populist policies resulted in a combination of severe Western sanctions and economic crisis. This situation rehabilitated Rafsanjani’s image, giving him an opportunity to come to the political front as a voice of those who want any change in the system and society. In fact, unpredictable dynamics of Iranian politics made him return yet again as the “Man in times of Crisis.”
But 78-year-old Rafsanjani was disqualified due to his senility. The important point to note is that what Guardian Council did, or in a more transparent way, what Ayatollah Khamenei did, had a critical message: the competition with the regime through presidential election should be substituted by the competition in the regime.
Though disqualified, his last minute entry destroyed all the hard-liners plans for the presidential election, and gave way for Rowhani to win the election. Rafsanjani’s decision to join to the race made conservative candidates portray themselves as radical as they could. They thought the more extremist was each one, the more chance they would have to get Ayatollah Khamenei’s crucial support. In this situation, conservative candidates who did not want to be singled out by a “secrete command” from the top hierarchy of the system, needed to represent, or sold out, themselves as the only choice for competing with Rafsanjani. That is why Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Tehran mayor and the only conservative candidate with a potentially popular support, took this deadly strategy and began attacking Rafsanjani. This made a unique opportunity for Rowhani to criticize the hard-liners’ 8 years policy through a reformist language.
More importantly, Rafsanjani’s shocking disqualification devalued Mashai’s disqualification. That was one of Rafsanjani’s major goals in taking the risk by entering the race. That is why Ahmadinejad could not keep threatening the system not to disqualify Mashai.
But winning the election is only the first step for the accomplishment of his mission. In fact, what persuaded Rafsanjani to run for office, and then supported his aide, Hassan Rowhani, was not resolving international and economic crisis nor was it a narcissistic impulse and an insatiable desire for power. Rafsanjani’s entry into the fray had message, a message to control a significant “process”; a process of “succession.”
The issue of Ayatollah Khamenei’s succession has captured the epicenter of public space just after the emergence of the Green Movement in 2009. Being groomed as the next Supreme Leader, Mojtaba, his second son, has been accused of supporting Ahmadinejad in the election 2005 and of controlling over the Basij that was effectively used to suppress the Greens.
Beyond who will be the next leader, what is important is that the institution of the rule of the jurist, under Ayatollah Khamenei’s leadership, has been empowered, even more powerful than under Ayatollah Khomeini’s legal power, through the support of IRGC, security service, and the hard-liners. All in all, what is lurking beneath the major Iranian domestic and foreign politics cannot be analyzed without their ties with this process.
This explains the gist of Ahmadinejad’s speech in front of his supporters, two months ago, “a little patience will change the condition” which basically means a complete substitution of the first generation of revolutionary elites. While almost all of the first-ranked, mostly clerical, elites of Islamic Republic are in their 70’s and 80’s, Ahmadinejad and his team are in their 40’s and 50’s. They had money and networks; as well as opportunities to mobilize people, particularly the marginalized. Had they come to power after the recent election, considering Ayatollah Kahmenei’s age, they would have had a unique opportunity to become king-makers. Rafsanjani came to the scene to prevent them manipulating this process.
Rafsanjani‘s aim now is to control the critical process of succession. To accomplish this strategy, he needs some facilitating factor to change the balance of power in his favor. One of these critical factors was a letter that was unexpectedly neglected in the eve of the election.
Right after Guardian Council’s decision to disqualify Rafsanjani, Zahra Mostafavi, Ayatollah Khomeini daughter, attacked Rafsanjani exclusion, calling on supreme leader to reverse guardian council's decision:
"On the same day I heard the Imam's (Ayatollah Khomeini) confirmation of your leadership from his own mouth, and I have consistently repeated that theory whenever necessary. I also heard him confirm the qualification of Brother Hashemi Rafsabjani, because the imam mentioned his name after your name. Fortunately and deservedly, you received the votes of the Experts; therefore, I did not see it necessary to mention any of this so far," Mostafavi wrote.
Right after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei was elected as a new supreme leader. However, he could not become the most powerful man of Iran without Rafsanjani’s word that Ayatollah Khomeini wished Ali Khamenei to be the next leader of the Islamic Republic; a speech which had a crucial role in persuading the Council of Experts for Ayatollah Khamenei’s leadership.
For years, many critics have held Rafsanjani responsible for bringing Ayatollah Khamenei to power and have criticized him for it. None of them, however, could predict that finishing Rafsanjani would be new supreme leader’s obsession.
The significance of this letter, that is deserved to be called a historical letter, was not Ayatollah Khomeini’s daughter’s support of Rafsanjani, nor was the critique of Ayatollah Khamenei. For the first time, a publicly written letter pointed to Ayatollah Khomeini’s attitude toward Rafsanjani as a potential candidate to succeed him as the supreme leader; a message that can effectively make a powerful alternative for Ayatollah Khamenei. This means that in future the currently hidden process of succession beneath the fluid dynamics of the Iranian politics will be revealed.
Acquiring a deep, broad socio-political base within the Iranian society, Rafsanjani has shown that the source of power is not military and brute force; rather it is derived from people. Putting emphasis on this issue in his various speeches, Rafsanjani could gain a symbolic and political capital, and he was clever enough to invest this acquired symbolic-sociopolitical capital in his closest aide, Hasan Rowhani.
At this stage, Rafsanjani has no capability to challenge the supreme leader directly, though the recent election has shown that he is still a genius game changer in Iran. Thus, his strategy would be a gradual challenge: “War of Position” in Gramscian term. From now on, the story of the Islamic Republic may be narrated in the clash between brute force and people on the process of succession.
It seems that the destiny of the Islamic Republic is tied with the last season of a “Man for All Season”: Ali Akbar Hasehmi Rafsanjani. His last season has just begun. Arash Reisinezhad is a research fellow at the Middle East Studies Center and a PhD candidate at the School of International and Public Affairs, at Florida International University.