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Rafsanjani's Exit from Power: What Next?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

14 Mar 2011 06:30Comments
HashemiAhmjadWave.jpgThe disappearing middle in Iranian politics.

[ comment ] There is no question that ever since the Revolution of 1979, Akbar Hashemi Bahramani, universally known as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been one of Iran's most influential figures. Aside from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, only Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the sociologist and distinguished Islamic scholar; Ayatollah Seyyed Mahmoud Taleghani (1911-1979), the progressive cleric, and Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri (1922-2009) were more influential than Rafsanjani. But all of them have passed away. Rafsanjani, often referred to as the "pillar of the Revolution," is also on his way out. His exit will have important consequences for Iran's future.

In its meeting on March 8, the Assembly of Experts, the constitutional body that appoints the Supreme Leader and can theoretically fire him in accordance with Article 111 of the Constitution, elected Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, the conservative cleric and an influential figure behind the scenes, as its new chairman, effectively sacking Rafsanjani, who had held the post since 2007. Kani did not want the position, but under tremendous pressure from conservative clerics, hardliners, and presumably Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he finally relented and accepted the post. Rafsanjani had already announced that if Kani was willing to take over, he would not run for reelection, but given Rafsanjani's undisputed political instincts, it is safe to assume that he had seen the writing on the wall and wanted to leave the scene while maintaining a modicum of respect.

First, a brief biography of Kani: He was born on April 8, 1931, in Kan, a village near Tehran. His father was also a cleric. He finished elementary school in Kan, studied for three more years in the religious Borhan High School in Tehran, and then moved to Qom to enter the Shia clergy. There, he was a student of such prominent clerics as Khomeini, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Reza Golpayegani (1895-1993), Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Boroujerdi (1875-1961), and Allameh Sayyed Mohammad Hossein Tabatabaei (1892-1981). While still in his teens, he began opposing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After Boroujerdi, the most important Marja taghlid (source of emulation for the masses) of his era, passed away, Kani moved to Tehran and become involved in the struggle against the Shah. In 1977 he, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini Beheshti (1928-1981), Ayatollah Morteza Motahhari (1920-1979), and a few other senior clerics founded the Society of Militant Clergy (SMC), a conservative organization whose members played important roles in the 1979 Revolution and its aftermath. In January 1979, Khomeini formed the Islamic Revolutionary Council to prepare the nation for the transition from the Pahlavi regime to the new revolutionary government that was emerging -- Kani was one of the five clerical members of the council, indicating the level of his influence (Khamenei was not an original member of the council).

When the Islamic Revolutionary Committees were formed to protect the leaders of the Revolution, Kani was appointed as supervisor of the organization that oversawthem. He was interior minister in the governments of prime ministers Mohammad Ali Rajai (1933-1981) and Dr. Mohammad Javad Bahonar (1933-1981), both of whom were assassinated on August 30, 1981 (at the time, Rajai was president and Bahonar, prime minister). After their deaths, Kani was appointed interim prime minister. He served in that role till October, when Khamenei was elected president and appointed Mir Hossein Mousavi as prime minister.

Kani has been a member of the Guardian Council twice and a member of the Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, the Expediency Council, the committee that revised the Constitution in 1989, and the Assembly of Experts. In addition, in 1982 he founded Imam Sadegh University in Tehran and remains its president. He is also the head of the SMC. Kani, in sum, has long been an influential figure, but he has been in poor health for several years and may not last long in his new position as chairman of the Assembly of Experts.

Politically, Kani has always been a moderate conservative, never preaching radicalism. His moderation is exemplified by his attitude toward the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO). As I have described elsewhere, beginning on June 20, 1981, the MKO began an armed struggle against the Islamic Republic and assassinated many leading figures. After Bahonar and Rajai were killed, the headquarters of Iran's prosecutor-general was blown up on September 5, and Ayatollah Seyyed Hossein Mousavi Tabrizi was appointed the new prosecutor-general. It is estimated that from late August to late September that year around 600 people were assassinated in Tehran alone. In retaliation, the government executed dozens of people, mostly young, every day, generating considerable concern among high officials.

In a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council attended by Mousavi Tabrizi, Kani, Deputy Prime Minister Behzad Nabavi, judiciary chief Ayatollah Seyyed Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardabili, and then Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei, Kani suggested that the council ask Taher Ahmadzadeh to talk to MKO leader Masoud Rajavi, who had fled to France. The objective: to convince Rajavi to negotiate and even offer the MKO some governments posts. Ahmadzadeh, a popular nationalist-religious figure close to former Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan, had seen his two sons, Masoud and Majid, executed by the Shah's regime. After the Revolution, he was the first governor-general of Khorasan province.

Mousavi Ardabili said that while he would have supported the idea six months earlier -- before the MKO began its campaign of assassination -- he was now opposed because such a move would anger the Iranian people. On September 26, a meeting was held in Rafsanjani's home that was attended by Kani, Khamenei, and Ahmad Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini's son. Kani suggested that all the executions be stopped, even of those whom he called mohareban (those who fight with God), to end the bloodshed, but his suggestion was rejected. In the same meeting, Rafsanjani reportedly suggested that the MKO members and supporters in jail be executed if the MKO continued to assassinated people, and that the executions be done on a one-to-one or one-to-two basis (by then over 2,200 people had already been executed). This proposal was also rejected.

Although it was only in the past several months that the removal of Rafsanjani from the top Assembly post became a central aim among the hardliners, it in fact represents the culmination of a long struggle between him and his supporters on the one hand, and the hardliners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Basij, and reactionary clerics led by Ayatollahs Mohammad Yazdi, Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, and Ahmad Khatami, with blessing of the Khamenei, on the other. While the struggle intensified after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, it actually goes back to 1993 when Rafsanjani was elected for a second term as president. Khamenei, his longtime friend, had already been the Supreme Leader for four years and was consolidating his power. He did not want any rival to his authority, and Rafsanjani was considered the most powerful person in Iran at the time.

Earlier, in 1991, the Guardian Council, with Khamenei's support, had reinterpreted the Constitution and given itself the power to vet candidates for most elections. Then, in the elections for the Fourth Majles in 1992, the Islamic leftist candidates were all disqualified, and the right wing and in particular the Islamic Coalition Party took control of the legislature. The new Majles and Khamenei began reducing Rafsanjani's power and influence.

First, 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 television and radio network) for ten years, was removed by Khamenei. Ali Larijani (now speaker of the Majles) was appointed in his place. Mohammad Khatami, the progressive minister of culture and Islamic guidance, was forced out and was replaced by, first, Ali Larijani and then by Mostafa Mir Salim, an ultrareactionary figure who tried to censor even the masterpieces of Iranian literary figures, such as Hafez. Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri, a progressive cleric, was replaced by Ali Mohammad Besharati, another right-winger, and Dr. Mostafa Moein, minister of science and higher Education, was replaced by the conservative Mohammad Reza Hashemi Golpayegani. Most importantly, Rafsanjani was obliged to retain Ali Fallahian, a man implicated in many crimes, particularly the infamous Chain Murders, as minister of intelligence. Fallahian was so terrifying that when Rafsanjani introduced him to the Majles in 1993 to receive a vote of confidence for his second cabinet, he said jokingly (but also seriously), "Of course, none of you would dare to vote against him." Rafsanjani was thus pushed back and a right-wing cabinet was formed. Years later, when the conservatives were threatening to push out Mohammad Khatami's ministers, they referred to their attempt as "Hashemization." That signaled the beginning of the confrontation between Rafsanjani and Khamenei's conservative supporters.

From a political view, what angered the conservatives and hardliners about Rafsanjani was what he did in 1996-97, during the Majles and presidential elections. In the preparation for the Fifth Majles elections in 1996, he suggested that the Society of Militant Clergy draw up a list of candidates including both Islamic leftists, moderates, and right-wingers. But the SCM rejected five of the candidates proposed by Rafsanjani, including Abdollah Nouri. Subsequently, ten cabinet ministers; four vice presidents (Iran has eight); Dr. Mohsen Nourbakhsh (1948-2003), governor of the Central Bank; and then Tehran Mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi declared the establishment of Kargozaran-e Sazandegi (Executives of Reconstruction, or KS), the first reformist group in Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Rafsanjani is often called the spiritual father of the KS.

The first central committee of the KS consisted of Nourbakhsh, Ataollah Mohajerani (Rafsanjani's first vice president and Khatami's minister of culture and Islamic guidance, who now runs the pro-Green Movement website Jaras from London), Mohammad Hashemi Bahramani, Ali Hashemi Bahramani (Rafsanjani's nephew), Karbaschi, and Mostafa Hashemi Taba (who was later appointed by Khatami to head Iran's Sports Organization). The group began publishing the daily Bahman. All evidence suggests that Rafsanjani and the people around him had planned on founding the KS even before the dispute over the SMC candidate list.

The KS, together with the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC), scored major victories. Ninety of their candidates were elected to the Fifth Majles. Faezeh Hashemi, Rafsanjani's daughter, received the largest number of votes in Tehran, although the conservatives changed the votes to declare the conservative cleric Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri the highest vote getter. The hold of the conservatives on the Majles was broken, deeply angering them.

The following year, Mohammad Khatami ran against Nategh Nouri for the presidency. The conservatives were attacking Khatami savagely. Shortly before the election, Kani declared that Khamenei favored Nategh Nouri. There were widespread rumors that the right wing would use fraud to declare him the winner. As the renowned satirist Kiumars Saberi Foumani (1941-2004), who published the satirical weekly Gol Agha, put it at the time, "Write Khatami [on the ballots], read Nategh [when counting the votes]!"

On May 16, 1997, one week before the election, Rafsanjani led the Tehran Friday Prayers at the campus of the University of Tehran. In his sermon, he criticized those who were attacking Khatami and declared that he would not allow any fraud in the election, which he guaranteed would be honest. A week later, Khatami won in a landslide. The big losers were Kani and Khamenei, further angering the hardliners.

That 1997 election also provided a glimpse into Kani's thinking. Recalling the period, Kani has said,

After the seventh presidential election and election of Mr. Khatami, we met with the Supreme Leader and spoke to him. I told him that we had a duty [to back Nategh Nouri for president], did our job, and our candidate was not elected. We have one of three choices. One is that we resist, declare that we do not accept the selection [of Khatami] because the election failed and we do not accept the people's vote. But this seems not to be a wise choice, because people voted and we cannot say we do not accept it.

The second choice is we declare that the people voted, Mr. Khatami was elected, we accept the people's vote and will work with him, and we have changed our minds [about Khatami]. This would be tantamount to admitting that we made a mistake [in supporting Nategh Nouri] and repent for our sin and mistake. But, we are not willing to do this, because we [still] do not consider him [Khatami] the most qualified candidate.

The third choice is that we declare that in accordance with the law we respect the people's vote, accept their vote, and out of respect for the people and in order to protect the system we will work with him [Khatami] as much as possible, but at the same time we will protect the Islamic system by monitoring everything carefully and if we feel that it is threatened we will shoot [at the opposite camp].... But, if you tell us to oppose [Khatami], we will, and if you say do not oppose [Khatami], we will not. Even if you say do not criticize him at all, we will not. If you tell us to criticize him, we will. We are not lying. We accept you as the vali-ye amr [Supreme Leader], even when we do not agree with you.

There is also another widely reported tale of that meeting according to which Kani asked Khamenei not to accept the result of the election outright, but he refused.

Despite Rafsanjani's role in the election of Khatami, the reform era was damaging to him. The press was relatively free for the first three years of the Khatami presidency. The Chain Murders in autumn 1998 motivated investigative journalists Akbar Ganji and Emad Baghi to probe the issue deeper than the conservatives and reactionaries wanted. In particular, Ganji accused Rafsanjani of turning a blind eye to, or neglecting to supervise, Minister of Intelligence Fallahian, one of the main culprits in the cycle of killings that began shortly before his presidency in 1988 and continued unabated until 1998. Ganji never mentioned Rafsanjani by name, but it was clear to practically everyone whom he was talking about. (Ganji recently claimed that the real target of his investigative work was not Rafsanjani, but Khamenei.)

By the time the elections for the Sixth Majles took place in February 2000, Rafsanjani had been discredited in the eyes of the excited nation. He ran in the election for a seat as a deputy from Tehran, but was beaten badly. Even after the Guardian Council changed the votes over the strenuous protests of Mostafa Tajzadeh, the deputy interior minister in charge of the elections, Rafsanjani came in as the 20th-highest vote getter. (Tajzadeh has been imprisoned since June 13, 2009, the day after the presidential election. A show trial yielded him a six-year jail sentence). Rafsanajni, however, declared that he would not join the Majles. Attacking him was a strategic mistake by the reformists, as he would have been their ally in the reformist-dominated Sixth Majles. Through his position as the powerful Chairman of the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani thwarted every attempt by the reformists to pass progressive legislation. More than 60 percent of all the laws approved by the Sixth Majles were rejected by the Guardian Council and then died in the Expediency Council. The reforms stalled.

In 2005, Rafsanjani declared his candidacy for the presidency again. In an interview with USA Today that February 6, 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, albeit within a small religious-backed elite. "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. He proved to be correct. The statement further alarmed and angered the hardliners.

Twenty days before the election on June 17, 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told his supporters to "wait for a miracle on election day." At that point, no one gave him any chance of even making it to the second round (a candidate must garner at least 50 percent of the vote to win in the first round). Everyone thought that Brigadier General Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards' air force wing and the national police chief at the time (he is now Tehran's mayor), was the conservatives' and Khamenei's favored candidate.

In fact, maneuvers were going on behind the scenes. Ahmad Tavakoli, a cousin of the Larijani brothers and a candidate in the 2005 elections, and Mohsen Rezaei, the former Guard commander and another candidate, both suddenly withdrew from the running. Yaalesaaraat-e Hossein, the daily mouthpiece of the Basij militia, predicted on June 15 that "we will turn 27 Khordad [June 17] into an epic event," and Kayhan, the daily mouthpiece of the extremists, declared on the same day that"there are signs that people are taking matters into their hands."

Rafsanjani made it to the second round of the election as the candidate with the greatest number of votes. But the reformists knew that he did not have much of a chance to defeat Ahmadinejad. The reason was twofold: the hardliners' fierce opposition to him and his reputation for being corrupt. A large segment of the population did not vote, and Rafsanjani was defeated through vote manipulations, massive support by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia for Ahmadinejad, and people simply voting against him and thus for the one remaining alternative. This was the second time in five years that Rafsanjani had been rebuffed. Discussing the election, he said, "I will complain to God." It has been reported that Khamenei told Rafsanjani, "If you had won the election, the Revolutionary Guards would have staged a coup to prevent you from taking office." That intensified the confrontation between Rafsanjani and the hardliners.

But it would be a mistake to attribute the hardliners' hatred of Rafsanjani only to his political maneuvers. Part of the reason for the hatred has to do with economics matters. Although Rafsanjani was born into a wealthy family, his own family has also amassed a vast fortune since the 1979 Revolution that few believe could have been generated by hard work alone. One son, Yaser, has become fabulously rich through real estate transactions in some of Tehran's most exclusive neighborhoods. Another son, Mohsen, who until last week ran the construction of the Tehran subway system, is also very wealthy. Mehdi Hashemi, the third son who lives in London, and a nephew, Ali Hashemi, have both been involved in oil deals. In 2003 Forbes estimated Rafsanjani's own wealth at over $1 billion, a huge sum anywhere in the world. The hardliners wanted their share of the nation's resources and riches, and perceived Rafsanjani and his supporters as impediments to achieving their goal.

During the 2005 campaign, Ahmadinejad repeatedly talked about an "oil Mafia" that was plundering the nation's wealth -- insinuating that it was Rafsanjani and his family who were the plunderers -- and promised to uproot it. Nothing was ever discovered, despite the fact that Ahmadinejad appointed his own men to the Oil Ministry. As is well known by now, the economic confrontation between the hardliners and Rafsanjani was not the result of any desire by the hardliners to uproot corruption. Rather, it was over who should get most of the "pie" that the vast state resources represent. Since 2005, Ahmadinejad and the hardliners have treated the astronomical income from oil exports and other state resources as their own property. He has awarded Khatam ol-Anbiya, the Revolutionary Guards' engineering arm, and companies linked to it lucrative contracts in almost every sector of the economy worth tens of billions of dollars, in most cases without any bidding. To boost his 2009 reelection campaign, he used public resources to distribute cash among the poor. His first vice president, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, has been accused of being the mastermind behind a large embezzlement case. In short, even according to the hardliners themselves, the Ahmadinejad administrations have been the most corrupt since the 1979 Revolution.

Rafsanjani's last base of power was the Assembly of Experts. Few thought that he would run for any office again after his defeat in 2005, but he made a strong comeback in the Assembly elections that took place on December 15, 2006. Despite the hardliners' best efforts, he received the highest number of votes, far more than Ahmadinejad's spiritual leader, Mesbah Yazdi. He then defeated the reactionary Jannati in the 2007 election for the chairmanship. Two years later, he beat back the hardliners' attempt to replace him with the corrupt hardline cleric Mohammad Yazdi and was reelected by an overwhelming margin.

Since 2005, Rafsanjani has also been a critic of Ahmadinejad, never missing a chance to criticize the failures and incompetence of his administration. His letter to Khamenei on June 8, 2009, right before the presidential election, further angered the hardliners. Saying that he refused to back down from criticizing Ahmadinejad, he warned the ayatollah,

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. Therefore, it is essential in the remaining time, that Your Excellency's and people's desire to have free elections with maximum participation by the people be realized, which can 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 [Khomeini], and add gasoline to the fire by breaking the law.

On both occasions to which Rafsanjani referred, Khamenei had sought to define the characteristics of what he regarded as a desirable candidate, pointing clearly each time to Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani was proven to be prophetically correct about the consequences of a compromised vote.

In the aftermath of the 2009 election, Rafsanjani positioned himself between the hardliners and the Green Movement. He has refused to criticize or condemn Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and in his much anticipated sermon during the Friday Prayers of July 17, at the University of Tehran, he declared that "an Islamic government cannot be founded without people's participation, and if people are not satisfied [with the political establishment], the government will not be Islamic." After making it clear that he believed that the nation was embroiled in a deep crisis, he outlined his proposal for getting the country out of it, including the immediate release of the political prisoners, compensating those who had been hurt, and allowing the press to operate freely. That further angered the hardliners. Since then, Rafsanjani has not led any Friday Prayers in the capital, but he has also 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 the political establishment controls the nation's resources and the military, but is up against "professors, teachers, students, managers, day laborers, and industrialists." Mentioning practically every social strata, Rafsanjani was saying that the establishment is up against the entire nation.

During its entire existence, the Assembly of Experts has taken only one meaningful action, which was appointing Khamenei as Supreme Leader in 1989. Since then, all that the Assembly has done has been to praise him profusely, never once criticizing him for anything. So why is removal of Rafsanjani from the leadership of the Assembly important, and what are the implications?

One reason that Rafsanjani's removal is important is that Khamenei, 72, is known to be suffering from prostate cancer. The hardliners are terrified by the prospects of Khamenei's death, and the possible rise of Rafsanjani to power. Rafsanjani is older, but at 77 he is still very healthy and active. If Khamenei passes away or becomes incapacitated due to his illness, the hardliners do not want Rafsanjani to be in a position to decide who should be his successor, the way he chose the successor to Khomeini.

In addition, the hardliners are afraid that Rafsanjani may revive the idea of a leadership council to replace the Supreme Leader, which he had advocated after Khomeini's death. Some of the top Revolutionary Guard commanders are ideologically committed to the doctrine of Velaayat-e Faghih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist) and do not want to change the system. Thus they did not want Rafsanjani in a position where he could effectively resurrect his leadership council notion.

Moreover, as the chairman of the Assembly, Rafsanjani was perhaps the only one who could avert a final bloody showdown between the democratic movement and the hardliners. Refusing to condemn Mousavi and Karroubi, constantly repeating the theme that "in this day and age the people cannot be ruled by a dictatorship," and continuing to call for a more open political system and the need to redress some of the issues that prompted the 2009 protests, he was the last person with any authority who could freely cross the lines that separate the two camps. But it is no longer acceptable to the hardliners for any politician to take a stand in the middle of the extremely polarized political environment.

But it is also telling that, despite controlling all the levers of power and all the resources of the state, including a powerful propaganda machine, the hardliners could not come forward with their own candidate for the chairmanship of the Assembly. Men like Jannati, Mohammad Yazdi, Mesbah Yazdi, and Ahmad Khatami are too discredited, as even the hardliners are aware. So they had to turn to a moderate conservative and a longtime friend of Rafsanjani in order to remove him.

Such is the state of affairs in Iran. The most influential man over the past three decades, the man who played the most important role in the appointment of the current Supreme Leader, the very "pillar of the Revolution," has now been abandoned by Khamenei, a relatively minor revolutionary figure, as this could not have happened without his consent. Rafsanjani's son Mehdi used to be a close friend of Khamenei's son Mojtaba, who is believed to be close to the Revolutionary Guard high command and is being groomed by his father to succeed him. But Mehdi now lives in exile in London, and Rafsanjani's daughter, Faezeh, was recently subjected to verbal assault by a Basij gang.

When the Shah was forced to leave Iran on January 16, 1979, he formed the Regency Council to act in his absence, because his son Reza was still too young. The head of the council was Seyyed Jalal-olddin Tehrani, a respected elder man from a clerical family (and a neighbor of the author during his childhood). Tehrani lasted only five days in the post. He submitted his resignation on January 21 and left politics behind. In his resignation letter, Tehrani wrote, "Accepting the chairmanship of the Regency Council by me was only due to my consideration for protecting the interests of the nation and creating calm. Over this period [the five days that he headed the council], the conditions have changed dramatically and therefore out of respect for public opinion I am resigning from the post."

I do not see Kani doing the same. Removal of Rafsanjani from the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts has only deepened the crisis that the nation is facing.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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