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The Middle Road of Hashemi Rafsanjani

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

28 Apr 2010 03:348 Comments
rafsanjani.jpgAmong all of the original leaders of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there are few who have been more influential than Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Bahramani, universally known as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Aside from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, only Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the philosopher and distinguished Islamic scholar; Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-1979), the progressive cleric; Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (1922-2009), the spiritual leader of the Green Movement; and Ayatollah Dr. Sayyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti (1928-1981), Iran's first judiciary chief after the Revolution, were, or could have been, more influential than Rafsanjani. And all of them have left the scene.

Shariati did not live long enough to see the fruits of his leftist ideology, which deeply influenced millions of Iran's youth and Islamic revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s. Taleghani's untimely death on September 9, 1979, only ten months after the toppling of the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, deprived Iran of a popular and truly progressive cleric. Despite his opposition to the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist, the backbone of the current political system), he had good relations with political groups across the ideological spectrum. Beheshti was assassinated on June 28, 1981. I believe that, had he not been murdered and Taleghani not passed away, Iran's postrevolutionary history would have been very different. Montazeri was expelled from the power hierarchy in 1989, shortly before Khomeini's death that June, because of his courageous protests against the execution of more than 4,500 political prisoners the previous year.

Only one man from Khomeini's inner circle of 1978-1979 is still alive, and that is Rafsanjani. Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, despite his pretense, was not part of that circle. In fact, Khomeini did not even appoint him to the Islamic Revolutionary Council that he formed on January 12, 1979, to oversee the transition from the Pahlavi regime to a new government. The council consisted of both Islamic and secular opposition figures, as well as two representatives of the security forces. As its founding members, Khomeini selected Beheshti; Morteza Motahhari (1920-1979), his progressive disciple who was soon assassinated; Rafsanjani; Mir Hossein Mousavi; Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili; and Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar (1933-1981), assassinated in August 1981, only days after his appointment as prime minister.

The rest of the council's members, such as Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995), first prime minister after the Revolution; Ayatollah Taleghani, Ayatollah Khamenei; Abolhassan Banisadr, first president of the Islamic Republic; Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the influential conservative cleric; Dr. Yadollah Sahabi (1905-2002), the prominent scientist, political figure, and Islamic reformer; Mostafa Katiraei, a minister in Bazargan's government; Ahmad Sadr Haj Sayyed Javadi; Dr. Ebrahimi Yazdi, current leader of the opposition Freedom Movement; Sadegh Ghotbzadeh (1936-1982), a close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini who was executed; Karim Sanjabi (1904-1995); Admiral Ahmad Madani (1928-2006), and others were invited to join by the council by its original members.

Early Life

Rafsanjani was born on August 24, 1934, in Bahraman, a village near the city of Rafsanjan in Kerman province in south-central Iran. His father, Mirza Ali Hashemi Bahramani, was a wealthy pistachio grower who had five sons and four daughters with his wife, Mah Bibi Safarian. In Iran, Hashemi is usually the last name of a person who is a Sayyed -- someone who can trace direct lineage to the Prophet Mohammad. Rafsajani is not a Sayyed, but the last name was used because his great-grandfather's name was Hashem.

Rafsanjani left Bahraman at the age of 14 and moved to Qom to receive a Shia education. He studied under many of the most prominent ayatollahs, but has always considered himself, first and foremost, a disciple of Khomeini. In 1958, he married Effat Mar'ashi, a daughter of a respected cleric of Rafsanjan, Sayyed Mohammad Sadegh Mar'ashi, and granddaughter of Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Kazem Tabatabaei Yazdi, an important cleric during the Constitutional Revolution, which he opposed. They have five children: Fatemeh (a physician), Mohsen, Faezeh, Mehdi, and Yaser.

After Khomeini was exiled in November 1964, first to Turkey and then Iraq, Rafsanjani and other former students of the ayatollah continued the struggle against the Shah. In retaliation for their leader's exile, his followers assassinated the Shah's prime minister, Hassan Ali Mansur (1923-1965), on January 27, 1965. The actual gunman was Mohammad Bokharaei, a 17-year-old member of the Fadayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam) group. It is widely believed that it was Rafsanjani who provided the gun to Bokharaei, although he has denied it. Bokharaei and his three accomplices -- Haj Sadegh Amani, Reza Saffar Harandi, and Morteza Niknejad -- were executed.

SAVAK, the Shah's dreaded security apparatus, was aware of Rafsanjani's activities. He was in close contact with Khomeini in Najaf, Iraq, as well as with the Mojahedin-e Khlagh Organization (MKO), the leftist Islamic group founded in 1965, through Vahid Afrakhteh. The MKO was also in contact with Khomeini through Torab Haghshenas and Hossein Rouhani. When a communist faction that included Afrakhteh took over the MKO in 1975, Rafsanjani cut off contact with them. There are many documents from that era that show that he was under sometimes ridiculously close surveillance by SAVAK. Between 1963 and 1978, he was jailed five times.

The Revolution

After the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was toppled in February 1979, the clerics founded the Islamic Republican Party. The founders were Rafsanjani and ayatollahs Beheshti, Mousavi Ardabili, Bahonar, and Khamenei, who also founded the daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Islamic Republic), which is still published. In addition to this core of five, the central committee of the party also included Mir Hossein Mousavi, its political director and the first editor of Jomhouri-ye Eslami; Asadollah Badamchian, a right-wing member of the Islamic Coalition Party, who has been implicated in many crimes; Dr. Hassan Ayat, a disciple of Dr. Mozaffar Baghai, a Shah supporter during the 1953 CIA coup who was assassinated by the MKO in July 1981; Abdollah Jasbi, current president of Islamic Azad University, Iran's largest university; Habibollah Asgar Oladi Mosalman, Badamchian's comrade in the Islamic Coalition Party; and Mehdi Araghi, who was assassinated in 1979. The party was dissolved in May 1987 by order of Khomeini, after the rift between left- and right-wing clerics grew too deep.

In the evening of Saturday, May 25, 1979, two members of the Forqan group tried to assassinate Rafsanjani at his home, but he survived the severe injuries he received. The leftist Islamic, but anticlerical, Forqan was made up of followers of Shariati; see here for a brief history of the group.

Rafsanjani has stated many times that, in its deliberations, the Islamic Revolutionary Council never considered the position of the Supreme Leader, and always wanted the new political system to have a president and a powerful prime minister on the French model. This is true. The council formed a committee to draft a new Constitution. Members of the committee included Nasser Katouzian, a distinguished legal scholar; Mohammad Jafar Jafari Langaroudi, an expert on international law; Abdolkarim Lahiji, a prominent human rights advocate; Fatollah Banisadr, brother of Abolhassan Banisadr; and Hassan Habibi, first vice president under both Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami.

The draft that the committee produced, patterned after the constitutions of Belgium and France, did not include the post of Supreme Leader. It was a completely democratic instrument that would have led Iran down a very different path than its current one, had it survived. The draft was approved by Khomeini, who asked Bazargan to put it to a vote via referendum. But Bazargan, due to his honesty and integrity, committed what is considered by some a grave mistake: he reminded the ayatollah that, while in Paris in autumn 1978, he had promised the people that the new Constitution would be drafted by a Constitutional Assembly. Indeed, in the order appointing Bazargan as prime minister of the provisional government issued by Khomeini on February 5, 1979, overseeing elections for the Constitutional Assembly is listed as one of his key tasks.

Taleghani suggested the formation of an Assembly of Constitutional Experts to review the draft. It was then that Velaayat-e Faghih and the post of Supreme Leader were added to the Constitution. Those who criticize Bazargan and his comrades are not aware of their impeccable honesty and loyalty to the promises that they had made to the people, as well as their effort to put Iran on a democratic path. Until the end of his life, Bazargan opposed Velaayat-e Faghih.

Rafsanjani was elected to the 1st and 2d Majles (parliament) in 1980 and 1984, serving as speaker both times. According to Iran's Constitution, the Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. When Abolhassan Banisadr was elected Iran's first president in January 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini transferred his military authority to him. After Banisadr was impeached in June 1981 and fled the country, and Khamenei was elected president, Khomeini transferred his military authority not to Khamenei, but to Rafsanjani. In fact, as I have described elsewhere, the relation between ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei was often tense. During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988, Rafsanjani developed close relations with many of the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He and Mousavi played key roles in persuading Khomeini that the war with Iraq must end.

The Post-Khomeini Era

When Khomeini passed away in June 1989, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that selects the Supreme Leader and theoretically monitors his performance, held an emergency session to select his successor. The first choice was Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1897-1993), considered the foremost Marja' Taghlid (source of emulation) of the time, but he did not receive the necessary supermajority of two-thirds of the assembly.

Rafsanjani then proposed that, instead of selecting a new Supreme Leader, the assembly select a leadership council to oversee the country. This council was supposed to consist of the Ahmad Khomeini (1945-1995), son of the late ayatollah; Rafsanjani; and ayatollahs Mousavi Ardabili, Ali Meshkini (1922-2007), and Khamenei (Rafsanjani retrospectively mentions only these last three). Though he now uses it as a tool of his dictatorial rule, Khamenei himself had stated repeatedly, "I am opposed to the Velaayat of a single person," presumably because he saw no chance to be Supreme Leader himself The assembly debated the suggestion and 45 members, a bare majority, voted against it. Rafsanjani himself has always said that "more than 20 members voted for the Council," but has never given a precise count, presumably because the vote was very close (the assembly has 86 members).

Due to his long friendship with Khamenei and the fact that he considered him weak on religious credentials and, therefore, pliable, Rafsanjani -- assisted by Ahmad Khomeini -- cooked up a quote supposedly uttered by Khomeini, indicating that he thought Khamenei could be the next Supreme Leader. No one else has ever claimed to have heard Khomeini offer any such view. I also doubt the authenticity of the quote, given the tense relationship between Khomenei and Khamenei.

Once Khamenei was appointed Supreme Leader, he began relying on the security, intelligence, and Revolutionary Guard forces to expand his power, as had no support base of his own -- he was simply a junior cleric who had risen to high office through luck and Rafsanjani's help. At the same time, he took control of some seminaries in Qom by providing them with enormous financial backing. The right wing began publicly asking Khamenei religious questions, in order to prop him up as a Marja' Taghlid, which he was not. A Marja' must also have a tozih ol-masael (the book that explains to the followers of the Marja' what to do when a religious question arises), and Khamenei did not have one. It is widely reported that Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, the former judiciary chief and an Islamic scholar, wrote Khamenei's tozih ol-masael.

The Presidency

Between 1989 and 1997, Rafsanjani was, in practical terms, Iran's most powerful figure. As president, he began implementing the first five-year development program to repair the damaged inflicted by the war with Iraq. Oil income increased, military expenditures grew, and foreign banks provided large loans. His supporters began calling him Sardar-e Sazandegi (Commander of Reconstruction).

Rafsanjani's ambition has always been to be the second coming of Mirza Taghi Khan Amir Kabir (1807-1852), chief minister of Naser al-din Shah (1831-1896) of the Qajar dynasty (1794-1925). Amir Kabir was one of the first important reformers in the history of modern Iran. Although he was killed on the order of Naser al-din Shah when he was still young, his program did put Iran on the long, often tortuous path toward becoming a modern state. In the 1960s, Rafsanjani wrote a book, Amir Kabir, Ghahreman Mobarezeh baa Este'mar (Amir Kabir: Hero of the Struggle against Colonialism), lavishing praise on the historical reformer. (It can be downloaded here).

He has also praised Amir Kabir in many speeches.

But while Rafsanjani's policies did repair most of the war damage and initiate an ambitious development program, problems also began to emerge.

First, corruption substantially increased, in contrast to the Mousavi government of 1981-1989, which was characterized by austerity and a relative lack of economic malfeasance.

Second, it was Rafsanjani, along with Ayatollah Khamenei, that allowed the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the Ministry of Intelligence, to become involved in economic matters. They failed to recognize that once powerful armed agencies are involved in the economy, a sick system, characterized by murder, corruption, and black markets, is the inevitable result.

Third, Rafsanjani, on the recommendation of the International Monetary Fund, tried to free the rate of exchange between the dollar and Iran's rial and let the market set it. During the 1980s, Mousavi had kept the rate low and constant. Rafsanjani's policy led to rampant inflation that reached 50 percent by 1992-1993, the highest recorded rate in Iran's history, leading to riots around the country.

Fourth, as Khamenei consolidated his power, he and his right-wing supporters began pushing out those ministers in Rafsanjani's cabinet who were not to their liking. Mohammad Hashemi Bahramani, the Berkeley-educated, nonclerical brother of the president who had been the head of the Voice and Visage of the Islamic Republic (the national radio and television network) for ten years, was removed and Ali Larijani, now Majles speaker, appointed in his place.

Mohammad Khatami, the progressive minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was replaced first by Larijani and then Mostafa Mir Salim, an utterly reactionary figure who tried to censor even the masterpieces of Iranian literature, including the works of Hafez. Ali Mohammad Besharati, another right-winger, took over as minister of the interior from the progressive cleric Abdollah Nouri. Dr. Mostafa Moein, minister of science and higher education (and later a Reformist candidate in the 2005 presidential election) was removed in favor of the conservative Mohammad Reza Hashemi Golpayegani. Most importantly, Ali Fallahian -- implicated in many crimes, including the notorious Chain Murders -- was imposed as minister of intelligence. Fallahian was such a terrifying figure that when Rafsanjani introduced him to the Majles in 1993 to receive a vote of confidence for his second cabinet, he said, in only partial jest, "Of course, none of you would dare to vote against him."

Fifth, in 1991, the Guardian Council unconstitutionally assumed the power to vet the candidates for most elections. In the vote for the 4th Majles in 1992, the leftist candidates were all disqualified, and the right wing and in particular the Islamic Coalition Party took control of the Majles. Rafsanjani had been surrounded. Years later, when the conservatives threatened to push out Khatami's ministers, they referred to their effort as "Hashemization."

Split from the Right Wing

But Rafsanjani staged a counterattack. He had already appointed Khomeini's close aide Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha, a leftist, as head of the Center for Strategic Studies, which operates under the president's office. The center became a breeding place for future reform strategists, such as Dr. Saeed Hajjarian and Akbar Abdi.

In preparation for the elections to the 5th Majles in 1996, Rafsanjani suggested that the Society for Militant Clergy (SMC), the conservative clerical organization of which he was a member, present to the public a list of candidates comprising both Islamic leftists and rightists. The SMC rejected five of Rafsanjani's candidates. There is no consensus on who all five were, as the list was never revealed. It is certain, however, that one of them was Abdollah Nouri, Rafsanjani's (and Khatami's) first minister of the interior.

The result was that a group including ten ministers of the Rafsanjani cabinet, four vice presidents (Iran has eight), Dr. Mohsen Nourbakhsh (1948-2003), governor of the Central Bank, and Tehran's mayor, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, issued a statement declaring the establishment of Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (KS, or Executives of Reconstruction), the first reform group in Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Rafsanjani is often called the spiritual father of the KS. All evidence suggests that Rafsanjani and the people around him had planned on founding the KS even before the dispute over the joint list.

The first central committee of the KS consisted of Nourbakhsh; Ataollah Mohajerani, Khatami's minister of culture and Islamic guidance, and currently a leading spokesman for the Reformists outside Iran; Mohammad Hashemi Bahramani; Ali Hashemi Bahramani, Rafsanjani's nephew; Karbaschi; and Mostafa Hashemi Taba, later appointed by Khatami as the head of Iran's Sports Organization. The KS launched a daily newspaper, Bahman.

The KS, together with the Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC), a leftist clerical group, scored major victories. About 90 of their candidates were elected to the 5th Majles. Faezeh Hashemi received the largest number of votes in Tehran (although the conservatives manipulated the count to declare the conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri the highest vote getter). The hold of the right on the Majles was broken.

And that was not the end of Rafsanjani's counterattack. The following year, Khatami ran against Nategh Nouri for the presidency. The conservatives were attacking Khatami savagely. Shortly before the election, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani declared that Khamenei favored Nouri. There were widespread rumors that the right wing would resort to fraud to declare him the winner. The renowned satirist Kiumars Saberi Foumani (1941-2004), who published the weekly Gol Agha, summarized matters: "Write Khatami [on the ballots], read Nategh [when counting the votes]!"

On May 16, 1997, one week before the election, Rafsanjani led the capital's Friday prayers at the campus of the University of Tehran. Criticizing those who were attacking Khatami, he declared that he would not allow any fraud and that the election would be honest. A week later, Khatami won in a landslide, officially starting the era of reform in Iran.

The Reformists' Strategic Mistake

But the reform era was also damaging to Rafsanjani. The press was relatively free for the first three years of the Khatami presidency. The infamous Chain Murders of autumn 1998 motivated a probe by investigative journalists Akbar Ganji and Emad Baghi that went deeper than the conservatives and reactionaries wanted. In particular, Ganji accused Rafsanjani of turning a blind eye to Minister of Intelligence Fallahian, one of the main culprits in the string of murders that began shortly before Rafsanjani took office in 1989.

By the time the elections for the 6th Majles arrived in February 2000, Rafsanjani had been discredited in the eyes of the nation. He ran as a deputy from Tehran, but was badly beaten. Even after the Guardian Council altered the count over the strenuous protests of Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy minister of interior in charge of the elections (recently given a six-year sentence after a show trial), Rafsanjani came in as the 20th-place vote getter. But he declared that he would not join the Majles and resigned.

By the Reformists' own admission, not ensuring Rafsanjani's continued participation in the Majles was a strategic mistake. (Similarly, Ganji recently said that the real target of his excellent investigative journalistic work was not Rafsanjani.) He would have been an ally in the Reformist-dominated 6th Majles. The Reformists had won the battle, but they lost the war. As chairman of the Expediency Council, the constitutional body that arbitrates disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council, Rafsanjani thwarted every attempt by the Reformists to pass progressive legislation. More than 60 percent of all the bills approved by the 6th Majles were rejected by the Guardian Council, and died in the Expediency Council. The reforms stalled.

The 2005 Elections

The Khatami era was coming to an end when Rafsanjani declared his candidacy for the presidency again. In an interview with USA Today on February 6, 2005, Rafsanjani's son, Mehdi, said that if elected his father would "change Iran's Constitution to reduce the power of Iran's Supreme Religious Leader and make the position a ceremonial role akin to the king of England." He also said that only his father could prevent Iran from losing any semblance of pluralism. "If my father doesn't run, all of the country will be under one group, and after that we won't have any free elections," he said.

The hardliners were alarmed, and there was clear evidence that they would go to any length to prevent Rafsanjani from getting elected. Twenty days before the June 17 vote, Ahmadinejad told his supporters to "wait for a miracle on the election day"; his pronouncement came at a point when no one gave him any chance of even making it to the second round of the elections (no candidate can win in the first round with less than 50 percent of the vote). It was widely thought that Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the chief of police and former commander of the Revolutionary Guards' air force wing, was the preferred candidate of Khamenei and the conservatives.

In fact, maneuvers were going on behind the scenes. Two candidates -- Ahmad Tavakkoli, a cousin of the Larijani brothers, and Mohsen Rezaei, the former Guard commander -- suddenly withdrew. Yaalesaaraat-e Hossein, the daily organ of the Basij militia, predicted on June 15, "We will turn 27 Khordad [June 17] into an epic event." Kayhan, the extremists' mouthpiece, declared on the same day, "There are signs that people are taking matters into their hands."

Rafsanjani led the polling and made it to the second round. But the Reformists knew that he did not have much of a chance to defeat Ahmadinejad both because of the hardliners' fierce opposition to him and his reputation for financial corruption.

While it is true that Rafsanjani was born into a wealthy family, he and his sons have amassed vast fortune that cannot have been generated by hard work alone. One son, Yaser, has grown fabulously rich through real estate deals in some of Tehran's most exclusive neighborhoods. Another son, Mohsen, who runs the construction of the Tehran subway system (at which he has done an excellent job) is also believed to be very rich. Mehdi Hashemi, the third son, and a nephew, Ali Hashemi, have both been involved in oil deals. In 2003, Forbes estimated Rafsanjani's own wealth at over $1 billion, an astronomical sum in Iran.

At the same time, Ahmadinejad was presenting himself as a simple, pious man of the people. The Reformists asked Rafsanjani to pull out in favor of Mehdi Karroubi, the outspoken Reformist candidate who had placed third in the initial voting. He agreed. But Khamenei told him to remain in the race, claiming that if he withdrew, the country would go into a deep crisis. Rafsanjani stayed in.

In radio interviews at the time, I predicted that Rafsanjani would be defeated, and that is what happened. Vote manipulations certainly contributed to his loss, as did massive support by the Revolutionary Guards and Basijis for Ahmadinejad, and the many people who turned out to vote less for Ahmadinejad than against Rafsanjani. This was the second time in five years that Rafsanjani had been rebuffed, or so it seemed. Referring to the evidence of vote rigging, he said only, "I will complain to God." It has been reported that Khamenei had told Rafsanjani, "If you had won the election, the Revolutionary Guards would have staged a coup to prevent you from taking office."

During the campaign, Ahmadinejad repeatedly talked about an "oil mafia" that was plundering the nation's wealth, which he pledged to uproot. The insinuation was that Rafsanjani and his family were at the center of this cabal. The promised revelations never occurred, despite the fact that Ahmadinejad appointed his own men to the Ministry of Oil. Such a mafia, if it existed, could not have been there during the Khatami presidency. Khatami's oil minister, Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, has been one of the most competent and uncorrupted senior managers in the country since the 1979 Revolution. In fact, it is Ahmadinejad and his men who have squandered the nation's potentially enormous oil income over the past five years.

The Comeback "Kid"

Rafsanjani made a strong comeback in the elections for the Assembly of Experts, which took place on December 15, 2006. Despite the hardliners' best efforts, he received the highest number of votes, far more than their spiritual leader, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi.

He then beat back their attempt to appoint a corrupt hardline cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, as assembly chairman, winning the body's vote for the position by an overwhelming margin.

Rafsanjani's son, Mehdi, played a key role in his father's victory. Born in 1969, he has a masters' degree in energy engineering from Sharif University and a Ph.D. in energy resources from Islamic Azad University. Amazingly, he was at one time close to Ayatollah Khamenei's son, Mojtaba, who is believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guards' high command.

They both participated in the war effort against Iraq during the conflict's final two years.

During the 2006 election for the Assembly of Experts, Hashemi formed a "Committee for Protecting the Votes" that dispatched monitors to all the polling stations, preventing large-scale fraud. The same tactic was employed by the Mousavi and Karroubi campaigns last year, but this time the hardliners had learned their lesson, and prevented their monitors from doing effective work. It was Mehdi Hashemi who organized the committee for the Mousavi campaign and headquartered it at Islamic Azad University. Kayhan angrily attacked the committee, claiming that it was a CIA plot. It was the committee that demanded the election be cancelled and a new one held. That is but one reason for the hardliners' anger toward Hashemi. They also believed that it was he who convinced Khatami to withdraw from the election.

The 2009 Election and its Aftermath

Since the 2006 elections, Rafsanjani has been a critic of Ahmadinejad, never missing a chance to decry the failures and incompetence of his administration, though usually without directly naming him. Rafsanjani's letter to Ayatollah Khamenei right before the June 12, 2009, election angered the hardliners deeply. He wrote,

Unfortunately, the untrue and irresponsible statements of Ahmadinejad during his debate with Mousavi, his predebate statements and the events afterwards remind us of what the hypocrites [a reference to the MKO] and counterrevolutionary groups said and did in the first few years after the Revolution, as well as the accusations during the 2005 elections, the elections for the 6th Majles, and the nonsense that [Abbas] Palizdar propagated [an ally of Ahmadinejad who made sweeping charges of corruption against the clerics in 2008], who has been convicted in the court of law. Since some of the allegations had already been printed in the government-controlled media and had been repeated in the speech [by Ahmadinejad] in the holy [city of] Mashhad, the claim that he might have been influenced by the debate's atmosphere and the attacks were unplanned is not acceptable. This is apparently an attempt to distract people's attention from the many documented reports by the Government Accounting Office about the $1 billion that is missing [see here], and committing thousands of other unlawful acts in using the national budget. Or it could be that he [Ahmadinejad] feels that his main competitor [Mousavi] is a hero of a quarter of century of the Islamic Revolution [and, therefore, feels vulnerable].

Tens of millions of people in the country and outside witnessed his lying and breaking the laws of religion, justice, morality, and fairness, and the attacks on the achievements of our Islamic system. But, the society, especially the youth, wants to know the truth, the truth that is directly linked with the legitimacy and prestige of our system and nation; if this had been about only a few people, I would not have written this letter.

Responding to Ahmadinejad's allegations that Rafsanjani was masterminding the challenge to his reelection, the letter continued,

History is witness to the fact that the majority of our revolutionary people are not influenced by such lies, and the evidence for it is the votes that I was honored to receive in the latest elections for the Assembly of Experts [in 2006], and you also know very well that, due to my responsibilities, I have not made any statement against any candidate in the present elections and, when necessary, I have emphasized the necessity of maximum participation by the people in voting and the fairness of the election, and I also stated officially that I did not intend to run...

It should be noted that it is possible that the government agents are aware of my view that the continuation of the present state of affairs [a government run by Ahmadinejad] is not in the interest of the political system and the country, and you yourself know this view of mine very well as I have told you my reasons for it, but I have never talked to the media about it...

Despite this, even if I patiently continue my policy [of not pursuing the matter], part of the population and political parties and groups will undoubtedly not accept this situation, and the volcanoes that are fed by people's anger will form in the society, many examples of which can be seen in the election demonstrations in streets and universities.

Rafsanjani prediction that electoral fraud, if committed, would yield "volcanoes...fed by people's anger" was, of course, correct. The letter ended by asking Khamenei to make sure that the upcoming vote would be free and clean:

Therefore, it is essential in the remaining time that Your Excellency's and people's desire for having free elections with maximum participation by the people be materialized to rescue the country from danger, and create national unity and public trust, so that those who seek to create strife in the nation cannot misinterpret and abuse what you said in Mashhad and at the mausoleum of the late Imam [Ayatollah Khomeini], and add gasoline on the fire by breaking the law.

On both of these occasions to which the letter refers, Khamenei had tried to define the characteristics of his ideal candidate, pointing clearly to Ahmadinejad.

In the aftermath of the rigged election of June 2009, Rafsanjani has positioned himself between the hardliners and the Green Movement. In his much anticipated sermon during the Friday prayers last July 17 at the University of Tehran, he declared, "an Islamic government cannot be founded without people's participation, and if people are not satisfied, the government will not be Islamic."

After making clear that he believed that the nation was facing a deep crisis (something that the hardliners reject), he outlined his proposal for getting the country out it:


1. The government should act in a way to restore the people's shattered trust in it.
2. Every person and every institution, whether it is the political establishment, or the government, the Majles, the security forces, or the protestors, should act lawfully. Those not happy with the present laws must try peacefully to modify them.
3. An environment must be created in which all sides can express their opinions peacefully and without fighting or fear (tacit support for peaceful demonstrations). The means of mass communication, especially the Voice and Visage, should promote this goal.
4. All political prisoners must be released immediately. "We should not allow our enemies to laugh at us and plot against us, because we have imprisoned some people. We need to tolerate each other," he said.
5. Those who have been hurt by recent events must be compensated. "We need to express our heartfelt and sincere sorrow for what has happened to them."
6. Independent means of mass communication must be allowed to operate legally and within the framework of law. The political establishment must not ignore the lawful rights of a free press.

Although the suggestions were modest, they still angered the hardliners. Since then, Rafsanjani has not led any Friday prayers in Tehran. But he has not stopped his criticisms.

In a meeting with university students in December 2009 in Mashhad, Rafsanjani said, "If the people want us to govern, we will, but if they do not want us, we must leave" the political scene. He also said that although the political establishment controls the nation's resources and the military, it is up against "professors, teachers, students, managers, day laborers, and industrialists." Mentioning virtually every social strata, Rafsanjani effectively declared that the establishment is up against the entire nation. He also reiterated his belief that "all the political prisoners must be released and be compensated, and the press must also be free."

When Mohammad Yazdi, the corrupt conservative cleric, accused him of not being in Khamenei's camp, Rafsanjani threatened to speak out about what went on behind the scenes in 1989, when the Assembly of Experts was trying to pick Khomenei's successor. It is known that at that time, Yazdi was opposed to Khamenei's selection as Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani ended his threats to tell all only after the archconservative cleric Ahmad Khatami (no relation to the former president) intervened.

Since last years's rigged election, Rafsanjani has repeatedly said, "Only the Leader can solve the problem." Some interpret this as an expression of loyalty to Khamenei. I read it differently. In my view, what he is saying is that, since the crisis has not been addressed, and because only Khamenei can address it, it is the Supreme Leader himself who is responsible for the deep crisis that the nation faces.

Due to such criticisms, Rafsanjani and his family have been the target of the hardliners' wrath. In order to isolate him, his son Mehdi and daughter Faezeh, the two politically active children, along with other members of his wider family have been targeted.

During the Stalinist-style show trials, the "accused" were forced to make accusations against the Reformist leaders, and in particular Mehdi Hashemi. In particular, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's vice president, claimed that Tajzadeh, Khatami, and Hashemi were the organizers of the protests in the aftermath of the election (see here, here, and here). Journalist Masoud Bastani was forced to make accusations against Hashemi. Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the Guards' top commander, also accused Hashemi and Khatami of trying to remove Khamenei from power.

Two months after last year's election, Hashemi left Iran. He now lives in London.

According to Minister of Intelligence Haydar Moslehi and Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, Tehran's prosecutor, an arrest warrant has been issued for him. Hashemi has countered that he will reveal the names of those who are pulling the strings behind the scenes. Rafsanjani, in a recent meeting with Khamenei, asked that a fair trial, presided over by a neutral judge, be arranged for Hashemi, to which the Supreme Leader agreed.

Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, Faezeh, has also been an outspoken critic of the hardliners. Born in 1962, she published the daily Zan (Woman) from 1996 to 2000, until the hardliners closed it. As an advocate of women's rights, she has stated that the strict Islamic hejab (cover) for women should not be mandatory. On June 20, 2009, she and several of her friends were arrested during demonstrations in Tehran against the rigged election.

She has continued to criticize the hardliners' response to the postelection protests, and has declared herself part of the Green Movement. She has further asserted that her father also supports the movement and is working behind the scenes on its behalf, even if he never says so explicitly. Prosecutor Dowlatabadi has warned that she too will be put on trial for "propaganda against the political system."

Hossein Mar'ashi, Rafsanjani's brother-in-law, a leading member of the Kargozaran-e Sazandegi Party, and one of Khatami's vice presidents, was arrested a few months ago, and after a show trial was given a one-year sentence. He is currently in jail.

Even Rafsanjani's grandson Hassan Lahouti -- Faezeh's son -- has not escaped the wrath of the hardliners. Faezeh and her sister, Fatemeh, married sons of Ayatollah Hassan Lahouti, who was active against the Shah. Imprisoned several times, he was often Rafsanjani's cellmate, and the two forged a close friendship. Lahouti was the first clerical commander of the Revolutionary Guards. Another son of his was a member of the MKO. In mid-1981, Lahouti went to the notorious Evin Prison to see him, but did not leave it alive. He had been very critical of the clerics, and was thus reportedly murdered while at Evin.

In March, when the young Lahouti, who is studying in London, returned to Iran to visit his family, he was arrested in Tehran's airport. Released on $73,000 bail, he will be put on trial, according to the judiciary. Apparently, his parents' home phone was being monitored by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, and during a conversation with them after last year's election, he had been highly critical of Khamenei.

Why are the hardliners so opposed to Rafsanjani? The reason is at least threefold:

First, they are afraid that he will revive the idea of the leadership council. Some of the top Revolutionary Guard commanders are ideologically committed to the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih, and do not want to change the system.

Second, due to his close relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani was privy to many of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the early postrevolutionary period. Whenever he is attacked too harshly by the hardliners, Rafsanjani has released a document or two to embarrass them. Although the hardliners claim to adhere to Khomeini's thinking, they are in fact doing everything they can to distance themselves from it. For example, Khomeini strictly prohibited the military from intervening in politics, whereas the Revolutionary Guards are now the real power in Iran.

Third, although Rafsanjani is relatively advanced in age, he is still very healthy and active. On the other hand, Khamenei is known to be suffering from prostate cancer. The hardliners are terrified by the prospects of his death, and the possible rise of Rafsanjani to power.

The coming months are crucial. Rafsanjani is perhaps the only person who might be able to avert a final bloody showdown between the democratic movement and the hardliners, and help Iran to move toward a more open, more tolerant, more democratic society. But will he be able to do it, and is he even willing to try?

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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8 Comments

Thank you, Dr. Sahimi, for this summary of Rafsanjani's place in revolutionary history. Your closing comments:

"The coming months are crucial. Rafsanjani is perhaps the only person who might be able to avert a final bloody showdown between the democratic movement and the hardliners, and help Iran to move toward a more open, more tolerant, more democratic society. But will he be able to do it, and is he even willing to try?"

sum up the situation quite clearly. No one, including Rafsanjani, of course, can be without past error.

However, a way to avert a 'bloody showdown' -- a civil war that could destroy the nation's structure and its people -- and at the same time, a way that could open a path for authentic democratic change, sounds very useful about now.

Again, thank you for this presentation.

Observer / April 28, 2010 9:22 PM

Thanks for the excellent read Dr. Sahimi.

ali / April 28, 2010 11:57 PM

A good summary, based on news. The closing was however shaky. Rafsanjani would be an important figure if.... and that is a huge "if". Second the piece misses the internal dynamics of Iran's politics completely. Rafsanjani's influece was based on different groups and circles of power. Those have found different agendas now.

Ali / April 29, 2010 2:06 PM

Deeply impressed with reading you article.
Best regards

gunni / April 29, 2010 7:56 PM

Another great article. One of the best and most informative on Iran.

1. It is amazing how the political establishment has moved to the extreme right while the public has generally been moving in the other direction.

2. God helps us when someone like Rafsanjani becomes our hope to "help Iran to move toward a more open, more tolerant, more democratic society." We Iranians are better than that. I realize that this may be the reality on the ground. But it is still very very sad.

Ahvaz / April 29, 2010 10:01 PM

Good ,fact-based, assesment but a lot about Rafsanjani can only be guessed at. His children have taken greater risks than he has.

pirooz / April 30, 2010 2:38 AM

Thank you, Mr. Sahimi, for your excellent article.
Rafsanjani's huge fortunes are proverbial among Iranians, but this is not my case here. I would rather like to object against your final conclusion.
You write: "Rafsanjani is perhaps the only person who might be able to avert a final bloody showdown between the democratic movement and the hardliners, and help Iran to move toward a more open, more tolerant, more democratic society."

I hardly believe that there will be a final bloody showdown in Iran for a simple reason: If the hardliners really mobilise the IRGC, Bassij and security forces against the people, who is going to protect the frontiers?
Being surrounded by American troops on three borders (Iraq, Persian Gulf and Afghanistan), it would be sheer madness to start a civil war within the country.
You may object that there is still the Artesh (regular army) to take care of national defence, but it has been sidelined by the IRGC long ago.

The IR has a major problem: its own stubborn (kalleh shaq) population (apart from sanctions, economic decline, political rifts etc.). As long as AN and his IRGC cronies do not cave in to its demands, this stalemate will continue...

Arshama / April 30, 2010 7:31 AM

Iranian people neither need the Barbaric Republic nor any of its dreaded riff raffs. This tyranny has one destiny, the garbage of history. Stay focused Iran, victory is at hand.

Niloofar / May 2, 2010 9:13 AM