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WikiLeaks, Rafsanjani, and Reading between the Lines


05 Dec 2010 04:2113 Comments

Story of Supreme Leader's supposed "terminal leukemia" part of a larger pattern.

[ comment ] I was checking out Balatarin, the top Persian link-sharing website, this week to see what was going on and what were the hottest topics of the day. Among the most commented-on items was one of the U.S. diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks, the one from August 2009 focusing on Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's claim that "Supreme Leader [Ali] Khamenei has terminal leukemia and is expected to die in months."

That cable goes on to paint a scenario, laid out by an unnamed Rafsanjani business associate, that has sparked intense discussion in the Persian blogosphere:

As a result, Rafsanjani has stopped campaigning within the Assembly of Experts to challenge Khamenei, and now is focused on "letting nature take its course."

Following the Supreme Leader's passing, Rafsanjani will try to mobilize the Assembly of Experts to appoint him as the new Supreme Leader. If he is successful -- though clearly he would face stiff opposition from [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad['s] allies in that Assembly -- he would then invite Ahmadinejad to resign and call a new election. Because Rafsanjani, [Mir Hossein] Mousavi, and their close support[er]s are anticipating this scenario, they are currently "laying low." [Ranfsanjani's business associate] told [the U.S. contact] that he did not expect to see opposition leaders calling for any further demonstrations or provocative activities in coming months that might undercut Rafsanjani's efforts to position himself as a future Supreme Leader.

Many are trying to explain that, based on the content of this cable, Rafsanjani is responsible for taking the Green Movement down the wrong path, or that he has convinced Mousavi to back off for a while.

As someone who worked with three of Rasfsanjani's children between 1996 to 2003, variously as an adviser, consultant, and editor, I see a pattern that many may have not noticed: Rafsanjani appears to be using allies to pass a certain message--that the "Godfather" remains powerful, despite what others may say.

In the past few years, there have been reports that people close to Rafsanjani have met with European and American officials. A source told me that before the 2005 presidential elections, a member of the Kargozaran party met with a number of European politicians to ensure them that Rafsanjani would win and put a freeze on Iran's uranium enrichment efforts. Thus, this emissary argued, there was no need to drag out negotiations over the issue before the elections. During this very same period, Time magazine ran a cover story on Rafsanjani.

Another source told me that, in the early 1990s, one of Rafsanjani's sons informed various international energy firms through his people that the Great Rafsanjani was actually the person in charge and would inevitably be the official leader of the country. This helped leverage many profitable contracts for the energy-related businesses that are controlled by the family.

Last year, a Rafsanjani surrogate tried to taint the Supreme Leader with information about the Khamenei family's wealth. After the effort to convince a professional news media outlet to run the story failed, it was published by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Though Makhmalbaf says that he received the documents from intelligence officers, the Rafsanjani operation was clearly instrumental in getting the material to him.

Earlier this year, we published a story on Khodnevis about the dubious presence of Iran's former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian in Washington. He had been accused of espionage for handling sensitive documents to European powers. So what was he doing in the U.S capital? Before running the story, I contacted one of the Rafsanjanis to find out if there was a link to the Godfather. In response, I received four calls from "Junior" asking me to embargo the report. Now the question was, Why? Wasn't Mousavian a close ally of the family? Wasn't he working for Rafsanjani's Expediency Council? Why exactly should I make the story disappear? The probable explanation for Junior's volcanic reaction is that Mousavian was delegated to convey certain messages to the Americans in the absence of any other Rafsanjani consigliere here in the United States.

As for the "leukemia" cable, it fits comfortably within the family pattern. A "businessman" visits a diplomatic contact to share some information. To explain the Godfather's plan. To suggest that even Mousavi is playing by Rafsanjani's rules. Many who have monitored the family can tell you how its members have used the press and former politicians and businesspeople to construct a particular image of the Godfather as a powerful figure that never fades, despite all that Khamenei has done to take him out. We should probably understand the cable's substance as Rafsanjani communicating to the Americans that he is still politically potent and well positioned to be the next Supreme Leader. That said, this strikes me as more wish than fact.

MousaviKhameneiAhmkhoRafsanjani.jpg On December 1, speaking on a United States Institute of Peace panel, Karim Sadjadpour, a Carnegie Endowment associate and prominent Iran expert, surveyed the different eras of the Islamic Republic. He described the first decade as the "Khomeini" years. The second decade revolved around the "Partnership" of Rafsanjani and Khamenei, and the third was defined by their "Competition." I would say that the rivalry continues and that Rafsanjani is using his pawns to secure Western backing at Khamenei's expense.

Now, if the Godfather's men are indeed going around attempting to deceive foreign diplomats and other officials, are they being taken seriously? It is true that it is hard to find a trustworthy friend inside Iran. It is difficult to know whom to talk to, who will have the most impact, and who has the final word. In this murky atmosphere, the members of the Rafsanjani clan -- and they are hardly alone in this -- are able to craft and disseminate their own version of the current situation in Iran and the prospects for the future. But not indefinitely.

For the moment, however, whether the information in indirect messages such as the "leukemia" cable is credible or not is almost beside the point. The crux of the matter is the intended impact of these indirect messages and the plan that underlies them.

Cartoon by Nikahang Kowsar for Tehran Bureau. Photo (left to right): Mousavi, Khamenei, Ahmad Khomeini, and Rafsanjani in the 1980s.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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There is another pattern and that is NikAhang’s relentless campaigng against Rafsanjani since he moved to Canada. It is easy to read too much into a conversation, which was apparently an effort to appear close to the political establishment, when one is this obsessed. I think Nikahang should heed his own advice and exercise some professionalism here. A professional journalist would not create a hypothetical pattern out of rumors….or maybe he does just that when his hate is just too strong.

Ali / December 5, 2010 7:05 AM

This is a well written article. The two events in the 1990s and 2005 that Nikahang says happened are consistent with what I know.

But, I agree with Ali that Nikahang - a respected journalist - should not create things based on conjectures. His dislike of the Rafsanjani family is simply too strong to hide, which colors his views, even if what he says is correct. I have some confirmed information about what his son Mehdi is doing, but do not believe that publicizing it is in the interest of the Green Movement.

Khamenei has been known to be suffering from some form of cancer for several years. Periodically, he disappears from the scene for a while - presumably for treatment - and then comes back and looked puffed up. But, he is said to be suffering from prostate cancer.

ISM / December 5, 2010 9:05 AM

In the words of my uncle,

"To kill a mullah, you'd need 9 cancers, a few stokes and heart attacks, all at the same time. For Khameini double that..."

Anonymous / December 5, 2010 10:49 AM

@Anonymous / December 5, 2010 10:49 AM


ahvaz / December 5, 2010 12:29 PM

A Farsi proverb"Sage zard baradare choughal ast"which literary means"A yellow cur,is the Cayote's brother"

Anonymous / December 5, 2010 1:34 PM

Khamenei just gave a speech before 100,000 Basidji two weeks ago. He looks fine. Sure he'll pass away some day, but how many of these imminent death rumors are we going to continue to entertain?

Pirouz / December 5, 2010 3:50 PM


The only 100,000-strong gathering khamenei can speak to are Basiji. Otherwise, he could not even dream that many of ordinary people, because he is despised by so many.

ISM / December 5, 2010 7:49 PM

I am pretty sure that Khamenei and the rest of these murderers thieves and liars will survive until they are put to justice by Iranians.

Maziar Irani / December 5, 2010 10:00 PM

An excellent explanation of what is happening in higher levels of politics in Iran. A good head up to westerns to do a better qualification on the news they receive. A great drawing of existing (but hidden) links from the news coming out of this special clan. Niki is gradually moving into professional journalism. This is great, but I am really concern about his safety. The mafia leaded by this family can be extremely dangerous to its opponents, considering its huge money and labor resources located in the west.

Mehrdad / December 6, 2010 1:52 AM

Thank you Nik Ahang. You should know that people like me in exhile who are commentators of Iran issues need inside expertise like yours and I think this is journalism.
Your well reasoned article is really appreciated. Cause people like me who doesn't have the contacts and the inside background that you have, can only see that there is something not right with this picture. It would have stayed a question mark for me, if I hadn't red your article.
Thank you again

x / December 6, 2010 2:36 AM

The problem is that the Rafsanjani has lost face with public, partly because of his opportunistic way of handling situations and he had bad lucks too, though maybe he was really someone ready to compromise Islam too! But he has lost all the so-called "God father" image!

Anonymous / December 6, 2010 3:37 AM

One cannot disagree with Nikahang!
Mr. Rafsanjani has been a clever politician.The Makhmalbaf story looks like an intelligence brief put into documentary format. as a distant observer; i feel Mr Syed Ali Khamenei is a human being like all of us. He can have likes in food; can use pipe for tobacco and should also buy a VW for his kids. I feel the conservatives and the green in Iran are not ready; not to forget the ultra MURTAJAY elements are united in one sense; are not ready to treat Agahi Khamenei as a normal human. if Wilayat faqeeh is bad constitutional product; then why the greens are using it through rafsanjani??? If Khamenei was correct is using the symbolic metaphor of talha and zubair on 4th june 2010??????

Naqi Akbar / December 6, 2010 11:33 AM

Mr Naqi is right

ali zadeh , Tehran / January 1, 2011 7:59 PM