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Dispatch | A New Turn for Rafsanjani and His Family


24 Sep 2012 23:45Comments
30459_522.jpg Detention of former president's prominent children another chapter in a long, complex tale.

[ news analysis ] The saga of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's chief executive from 1989 to 1997, and his family has taken a new turn this week with the imprisonment of his daughter Faezeh and the arrest of his son Mehdi following the latter's return to Iran after an extended absence.

Though earlier this year, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad extended an olive branch to his predecessor, the attacks on Rafsanjani from the camp of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did not subside. His own reticence and his network of political connections -- the extent of which is extremely difficult to determine -- afford him direct protection. But Mehdi and Faezeh, who are perceived as the more vociferous manifestations of his political persona, have for the last three years been repeatedly targeted for attacks by his opponents.

Mehdi Hashemi, a businessman, politician, and bureaucrat, was his father's campaign manager during the 2005 presidential election (Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the second round). He helped reinvent his father's image from that of a bulwark of the regime who presided over an era of severe crackdowns on social freedoms to one of a reformer and social moderate. During the campaign, Mehdi came under intense criticism by the hardliners for implying in an interview with USA Today that if elected, his father would change the Constitution to reduce the power of Iran's supreme religious leader, turning his position into a ceremonial one similar to "the king of England."

Mehdi's influence has extended well beyond electoral politics. In 2007, when the CEO of Total, France's largest oil company, was arrested on suspicion of having paid a 60 million-dollar bribe to Iranian officials, Mehdi, then active in the Iranian oil industry, was described as having received tens of millions of dollars in bribes from Total and other European oil firms over the years.

But what seems to have angered the government most is Mehdi's founding of the Committee to Safeguard the Vote, an independent organization established to act as a "parallel to the Interior Ministry," the executive department that oversees elections in Iran. The Committee played a crucial role in 2009 as the only outside observer of the electoral process, and it was responsible for releasing some of the data that indicated the result was fraudulent.

Mehdi left Iran during the unrest following the elections. His father's opponents, who now predominate in the circle around Khamenei, accused Mehdi of "having offered the notion of electoral fraud to Mir Hossein Mousavi, lending illegal financial support to Mr. Mousavi before and after the elections, and corruption."

After his return to Iran Sunday, following his sister's incarceration, Mehdi was arrested on Monday. The delay in his detention, according to the judiciary, was due to a clerical error. His mother, Effat Marashi, who showed up at the gates of Evin Prison, told reporters that her husband had been under pressure to "sing panegyric" or face the arrest of his children.

Rafsanjani's other incarcerated offspring, Faezeh Hashemi, is by far the highest profile female politician working within the shifting boundaries of the Iranian regime. A former parliament deputy, she is on the board of many cultural organizations and the founder of the magazine Zan (Woman).

She has always presented herself as a reformist. In early interviews, she advocated making hejab optional for women. For years a leading supporter of women's sports in Iran, she was often seen bicycle riding and skiing. The popular reformist magazine Shahrvand was shut down due to an interview with her, in which she accused Evin's infamous administrators of murdering her father-in-law, Hassan Lahouti, in the early years of the Islamic Republic. This was an accusation that indirectly touched Khamenei, and it was widely seen as an attempt by the Hashemis to publicly separate themselves from the current leadership and the violent origins of the regime -- a difficult feat to pull off, considering Rafsanjani's role in almost every major aspect of governance during the first two decades of the Islamic Republic.

In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, Faezeh was a much more outspoken supporter of the Green Movement than was her father. Cast by hardliners as his undisguised political voice, she was arrested twice for participating in the street demonstrations that followed the announcement of Ahmadinejad's victory. This past January, she was convicted of "propaganda against the ruling system" due to some blunt interviews with foreign-based media; she was sentenced to six months in prison and a five-year ban on all political, cultural, and journalistic activity.

She had remained free until Saturday night. Sources close to the Hashemi family told Rooz Online that she received a call early in the evening demanding that she report to Evin immediately. Though the authorities reportedly agreed to her request to wait for her until the morning, security forces arrived at her home at 11 p.m. to bring her to prison.

As with everything having to do with the Hashemi family, Faezeh's political activities lend themselves to a wide range of interpretations. She is seen as a strong and committed reformer by some, as an opportunist and pragmatic advocate of her father's interests by others. Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, repentant member of the hardline paramilitary group Ansar-e Hezbollah, now based in Europe, has gone so far as to allege that Faezeh and other Hashemis paid the Ansar to harass them in public, supposedly to win them popular favor as opponents of the hardline regime.

Long before his troubles with Ahmadinejad began, Rafsanjani senior was referred to colloquially as the Iranian Talleyrand for his uncanny ability to survive crises that should have uprooted him many times over. He survived an assassination attempt, managed to be late to a meeting in which an explosion decimated half of his political party, and switched between the left and the right wings of the regime at will. Most importantly, he has made it next to impossible for the Iranian people to guess with confidence at his intentions.

Asked about the Hashemi arrests, a reporter working in Iran said, "They will be out in no time!" Most people in Iran are simply watching for the next move.

by the same author | 'Paternal House': A Challenge to the Government

Avinar Rajabi is a pen name for a Tehran Bureau correspondent. Photo: Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, son of former President Rafsanjani, arrives at Khomeini International Airport in Tehran on September 23, 2012.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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