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Did He Jump or Was He Pushed? Cracking the Rafsanjani Code

by ALI CHENAR in Tehran

16 Mar 2011 01:42Comments
RafsanjaniLeaving.jpgSurvivor of over three decades' worth of intrigue beats a strategic retreat.

[ analysis ] Few figures in Iran's modern history are more controversial than Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hailing from a family of pistachio farmers in Rafsanjan in the southeastern province of Kerman, he was an early apostle of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's and one of his first appointments to the Council of Revolution, which oversaw the transition of power from the Pahlavi monarchy to the Islamic Republic of Iran. For the past 30 years, he has held an array of high-ranking offices and played a major role in most of the events that have shaped the nation. Members of his family have also held prominent executive, legislative, and media posts. No wonder for the past three decades, Iranians saw his hand in every affair of the state...and blamed him for almost anything that went sour.

His shadow has seemed ever-present. Allegedly, he engineered two series of talks with the United States and led the Iranian side in the Iran-Contra affair. Certainly, he was the main driving force behind the reconstruction efforts following the Iran-Iraq War. As president in the 1990s, he was dubbed the "Commodore of Constructionism" and his name came to symbolize free market ideas, economic expansion, and the luxurious lifestyles of a burgeoning "new money" class. However, his policies also fueled inflation to the extent that many middle- and lower-income Iranians have never forgiven him. As more Iranians bore the burden of an economy in transition, his popularity began to decline. As more new wealth was created, his family members were more often accused of corruption. By the end of his second and last administration, the question of his legacy sparked fierce debate.

Still, he carried on. He calmly oversaw the presidential election that brought to office the reformist Mohammad Khatami in 1999. He allegedly played a significant role in persuading Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei not to express any public support for the conservative candidate, Akbar Nategh Nouri, and to accept the election's outcome. Upon departing the presidency, he assumed control of the Expediency Council -- apparently, he was hoping to act as a grand moderator between the reformists and progressive forces on one side, and the conservative and traditional forces on the other. To this end, he ran for a parliamentary seat from Tehran in 2000, with the aim of becoming Majles speaker. His hopes were dashed by the reformist media and Khatami's supporters -- in particular, he was held responsible for the chain of political murders conducted by elements of the Ministry of Intelligence during his presidency. Although he officially received enough votes to garner a seat (there is serious doubt about whether he legitimately won that many), he declined to join the Majles.

Intoxicated by their sudden rise to power, reformists were not in the mood to share their success with Rafsanjani. Many were strong critics of his economic policies and many were bitter at their exclusion from the political process during his term in office. Most importantly, many saw him as a suitable scapegoat. The reformists could not criticize Khamenei openly while maintaining their political maneuverability. They also did not want to criticize Khomeini -- the founder of the Islamic Republic, the Imam -- for the many excesses of the first postrevolutionary decade, in which many had played a part. An increasing aware public had begun asking discomfiting questions about the early years of the republic, the summary executions and the prolonging of the war. Sacrificing Rafsanjani on the altar of public opinion, and thereby suggesting their own innocence, the reformists hoped to evade the confrontation with their own culpability raised by those questions. The ex-president lost the battle, and his political prestige received its first lethal hit. Denied the role of grand moderator he had sought, his credibility now was questioned by his centrist allies and conservative colleagues, alike.

The reformists came to regret their decision to make a scapegoat of Rafsanjani when they were faced with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Rafsanjani ran for the presidency with a blighted reputation. The negative campaign against him, conducted initially by the reformists, became ferocious and unforgiving when the political right joined in. Widely distributed CDs and pamphlets accused him and his family of corruption, of absolutism, of betraying the Revolution, of betraying the poor and the oppressed. Ahmadinejad, a small-time political operative, became the average Joe's hero by opposing him. In subsequent years, Ahmadinejad pursued the mission of attacking Rafsanjani and reducing his influence with a vengeance.

Rafsanjani became the fall guy for both sides of Iran's political spectrum. The political left has blamed him for his economic policies, impoverishing already low-income families, advocating capitalism, and enriching businessmen. The political right has attacked him for his materialistic approach, his ideological moderation, and opening Iranian markets to foreigners. Where the left accuses him of prolonging the conflict with Iraq to consolidate power, the right charges him with not allocating enough resources to the war effort and advocating a ceasefire. The left considers him responsible for the murders of the regime's political opponents and the right believes he did a poor job defending the regime from domestic opposition.

Last week, Rafsanjani announced that he would not run for reelection as president of the Assembly of Experts. This was not unexpected. The government-backed media has been aggressively targeting him and his family members since the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election. Many -- including journalist Akbar Ganji, who gained prominence with his investigations of the Chain Murders and implications that Rafsanjani was guilty of at least gross negligence -- argue that he would have liked to stay on as assembly president. In the view of these obervers, Rafsanjani was "fired." They describe his exit as masterfully planned by his hardline adversaries. The Economist, for example, said it was "performed with clinical precision." For many, this is the end of Rafsanjani. This correspondent disagrees with such assessments.

For one, the Assembly of Experts has rarely played a crucial role in Iranian politics. Its signal achievement was electing Khamenei as Khomeini's successor to the role of Supreme Leader. It is widely believed that Rafsanjani engineered that election -- and many forget that he was not president of the assembly at the time. Aside from electing the Supreme Leader, the assembly is constitutionally charged with overseeing his conduct. In reality, it has never exercised this authority. Some members of the assembly, such as the ultraconservative Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, believe their only job is to recognize "who has been blessed by Allah" to become the leader. There is not much room to second-guess such a blessing once it is conferred.

Next, many conservatives believe that Rafsanjani performed a masterful tactical retreat. Reporting the ongoing speculations in Qom, Tourjan, a seminary student's blog, has a story on how many in the holy city believe Rafsanjani blocked the election of Yazdi to the presidency by supporting Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, who won the votes of three-quarters of the assembly's members. In other words, Rafsanjani gave up his seat, but the old guard and the moderate conservatives are still in charge. One thing is certain about Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: he does not fight the battles he cannot win.

It is conventional wisdom that Mahdavi Kani is too old to be of any consequence in the assembly. But this view fails to take into account that he has a following of his own. For three decades he has been the spiritual leader and president of Imam Jafar Sadegh University. Located in Sa'adat Abad in northwest Tehran, the school offers majors in management and political science, along with other fields. Its central mission is to train leadership cadres for the Islamic Republic. Its alumni remain loyal to their alma mater and have their own network of connections. Many occupy high offices within the government and play important roles in running its daily affairs. They provide Mahdavi Kani a small but effective support system. Their increasing political significance might have played a role in Rafasanjani's decision to withdraw in his favor.

"Is Hashemi's time over?" Foreign observers have largely concluded "Yes." I posed the question to an Iranian academician. His answer: a simple "No." He continued, "Hashemi is not done for. Yes, it is true he has suffered a setback. He has lost a position whose political significance is very much debatable. However, by withdrawing from the line of fire and joining forces with Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani, he has emerged as a focal point for the moderate conservatives." The significance of last week's election is more psychological than political in his opinion. "His opponents now believe they have cut him off, but Hashemi is still Hashemi."

I addressed the same question to a journalist. He laughed. "Hashemi is very much alive.... Now he is free to organize the conservatives who are highly critical of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by assuring them he has no plot against the Supreme Leader." When I showed him the reports in the foreign media, he smiled. "The problem is that we are looking at the box and what comes out of it in the form of public speeches. These statements are publicly announced positions. They are not the private views. Second-guessing Hashemi in the past has been most difficult, and it has not become easier."

And, for better and worse, Rafsanjani still matters in Iran's politics.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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