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Q&A | Tightening the Noose Around the Rafsanjanis

06 Jan 2012 19:46Comments
Safe6343432816651.jpg[ Q&A ] The daughter of the former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been sentenced to six months in prison on charges of "spreading propaganda against the ruling system." The trial of Faezeh Hashemi took place behind closed doors in December 2011. Hashemi is a former member of the Iranian parliament. In an interview, Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst, gives her interpretation of the trial and conviction.

Why was Faezeh Rafsanjani charged?

Hashemi is the most politically active of former President Rafsanjani's children. She is a prominent social activist and leading Islamic feminist. A supporter of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi in the 2009, she participated in a number of opposition rallies after the disputed poll. Ms. Rafsanjani was arrested and briefly detained by security forces on two occasions and barred from traveling abroad. But her conviction on Jan. 2, 2012 stems from an interview with Rooz Online, an opposition online newspaper. The interview was conducted after she was harassed by plainclothes security agents in April 2011. She told the opposition news website that "thugs and hooligans" were running the country. She was subsequently accused and convicted of "insulting Islamic Republic officials." She was sentenced to six months in jail and banned from membership in any political organization as well as taking part in online and media activities for the next five years. Hashemi is likely to file an appeal. While she may be able to get her jail sentence overturned, the ban on her political activities is unlikely to be lifted.

Her sentence reflects the longstanding rivalry between two of the Islamic Republic's founding fathers: former President Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The two men have jockeyed for the upper hand--and the country's political direction--since the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. Hashemi's conviction is another way for the supreme leader to pressure his political rival at a time when Rafsanjani is already at the nadir of his power.

How has the regime's pressure on former president Rafsanjani increased in recent months?

Ayatollah Rafsanjani's political clout has diminished significantly since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in 2005. The campaign against him increased further after the controversial 2009 election. His son Mehdi Hashemi was forced into exile after being charged with corruption and named as a major instigator of the post-election unrest. His other son, Mohsen, was pushed to resign from his post as the director of Tehran's metro in 2011.

The Supreme Leader has gradually stripped Rafsanjani of his official positions. The former president was first barred from leading Friday Prayers in Tehran in 2009. In March 2011, he lost his position as the head of the Assembly of Experts, an elite clerical institution responsible for selecting and supervising the Supreme Leader. A few months later, Khamenei ordered the establishment of a five-member "arbitration committee" to resolve disputes among the three branches of government. The creation of this committee was widely interpreted as an attempt to further isolate Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, a body constitutionally mandated to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council--basically the same purpose.

In December 2011, Rafsanjani's personal website was blocked and later completely shut down. Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Ejeii said that the website was filtered based on the Islamic Republic's internet crimes regulations.

On Jan. 2, 2011 Iranian media reported that the passports of his family members were confiscated at the Tehran airport, further evidence of the regime's squeeze.

Why now? Is her sentence related to the parliamentary election in March?

The regime has ratcheted up pressure on the opposition ahead of the pivotal elections. The move against Hashemi may also be designed to compel the former president to publicly endorse the forthcoming poll and side with the supreme leader's loyalists--effectively political blackmail. So far, Rafsanjani had not taken sides.

Hashemi's conviction may also foreshadow a move to take away her father's last leadership post, chairmanship of the Expediency Council. The five-year term of the council's current members is due to expire in February. The prospect of Rafsanjani's reelection for another term is widely seen in Iran as improbable.

The move against Rafsanjani's family may be an effort to ensure that the former president fades quietly into oblivion.

What does this mean about tensions between Khamenei and Rafsanjani?

Tensions between the supreme leader and the former president, colleagues for a half century, may have deteriorated beyond repair in recent years. Differences between the two men came to surface during the 2005 election when Rafsanjani competed again for the presidency against then Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After the disputed 2009 election, the supreme leader publicly broke with Rafsanjani and said his views were "closer" to Ahmadinejad's.

For the past two years, Rafsanjani has in turn basically ignored Khamenei's orders that the regime's elite disavow the opposition Green Movement. Rafsanjani has repeatedly advocated national reconciliation, refusing to adopt the bellicose rhetoric of Khamenei's loyalists against the so-called "seditionists" of the Green Movement.

Rafsanjani's further isolation could facilitate Khamenei's proposal to change Iran's political system from presidential to parliamentary. Rafsanjani initiated changing the constitution in 1989 to create an executive president. He has recently challenged the return to the old system on grounds that it would undermine the Islamic Republic's popular legitimacy. If Rafsanjani is marginalized, Khamenei would effectively appropriate most levers of power.

Yasmin Alem, an independent Iran analyst, is the author of Duality by Design: The Iranian Electoral System published by the International Foundation of ElectoralSystems. This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

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