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What's Rafsanjani's political future?

Rafsanjani's comments about the situation in Iran's prisons resulted in unprecedented criticisms and may have cemented his political isolation.
EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran.

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani gives the opening speech during Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011. Rafsanjani lost his position on Tuesday as head of an important state clerical body after hardliners criticised him for being too close to the reformist opposition. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN - Tags: POLITIC

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former centrist president and current head of the Expediency Discernment Council, the advising body to Iran’s leader, staged unprecedented attacks against his hard-line opponents during an April 12 address at the Lady of the Revolution Conference.

Rafsanjani’s words were reminiscent of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri’s 1988 letter in which he raised the issues of oppression and the violent treatment of prisoners. That letter led to the stripping of his designation as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s successor, permanent political isolation and a long house arrest.

In his statements, Rafsanjani said, “This group [of superficial people] concern themselves with a few unveiled women on the streets but fail to espouse what should be done about oppression, what should be done about [conditions in] the prisons, what should be done about taking away people’s rights.” 

Once the second-most powerful cleric in Iran after Khomeini, Iran’s revolution leader, Rafsanjani has struggled for his political life since the 2005 presidential elections. Then, he was defeated by his staunch opponent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and his star began to wane.

In 2009, following the upheavals in Iran that were triggered by the defeat of Iran’s Reformist candidate and the repeat victory of Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani attempted to capitalize on the dissident movement, vehemently supporting the protesters in hopes of saving his political life. Rafsanjani was not, nor had he ever been, a member of the Reformist camp. His tactic of riding their momentum did not work. The movement was heavily quashed and he was pushed to the sidelines of Iran’s politics for another four years. 

Ahmadinejad’s presidency (2005-13) was a total failure for Iran, both at the domestic and international level. On the domestic front, Iran’s economy collapsed abysmally and in response to the 2009-10 upheavals, a heavily securitized atmosphere consolidated. Internationally, Iran became more isolated than ever.

Iranians reacted to that situation and in the 2013 presidential elections, they voted for Hassan Rouhani, a moderate who was also a confidant of Iran’s supreme leader. Since Rouhani came from the same school of thought as Rafsanjani and they had a long history of friendship that dated back to pre-revolution years, Rafsanjani saw the situation as an opportunity for his political revival and a return to the center stage. He became very vocal, pushing forward his agenda. This included greater tolerance and liberalization of the economy domestically, and coming out of international isolation, specifically ending hostilities with the United States.

At this point, among other challenges that Rafsanjani faces, the issue of his son, Mehdi, stands out. Mehdi, a businessman, faced charges on security offenses pertaining to the 2009 elections and for supporting the domestic opposition, financial crimes and corruption. Unofficial reports say that the court has sentenced him to 15 years in jail but that he can appeal.

Some observers inside Iran view Rafsanjani’s recent stormy attack, which partly targeted the judicial system (the situation in prisons) as an effort to discredit Mehdi’s final verdict to control possible damages to his political stature. Iran’s judicial system is the home to hard-liners and two rumored candidates to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: the head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, and Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejeie, former minister of intelligence and deputy judiciary head.

Ejeie, asked his opinion of Rafsanjani’s remarks at a news conference, said, “If these statements are not backed by evidence, they are considered accusations and even disruption of public opinion. … These general statements are definitely against the law.” According to the Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran, disruption of public opinion is considered a crime.

In his April 12 remarks, Rafsanjani also attacked the fanatics and the worried [in Farsi, "Delvapasan," those who oppose to the nuclear talks] saying, “These are the same people that offended Imam [Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran].”

This provoked anger and led to counterattacks by the hard-liners’ media and individuals. Surprisingly, although Rafsanjani did not specify whom he was addressing in his statement, chief among the responders was Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cmdr. Mohammad Ali Jafari. 

In rare and open remarks, Jafari retorted, “What does it mean to label those who gave the most martyrs [in the eight-year war with Iraq] and who still carry wounds from the fields of jihad on their body and soul, as fanatics and those who used to offend Imam? … Gone are those days that one could create permanent immunity for himself in our nezam [political system].” He added, “When the Islamic system wants to serve justice … the voice of the relatives of those who are exposed to prosecution is raised. These people want to replace justice with injustice.”

Jafari went further and tried to use his influence to stir conservatives’ feelings against Rafsanjani. “By hearing these statements from this type of individual, the worried will appear more determined, more alert, with stronger belief [in Islam] … to defend the Islamic Revolution and the ideals of Imam and martyrs. … These statements only add to the hatred of society toward them.”

Jafari implicitly alluded to the fate of Montazeri, who was elected to be the successor of Khomeini only to be wiped from the face of Iranian politics after calling the health of the system into question. Jafari said, “In the past, our revolutionary and faithful people … have isolated those who portrayed a black picture [of the revolution], as did their experts recently,” referencing Rafsanjani’s decisive defeat in March in a race for heading the Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with electing the supreme leader.

As we near the parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections that is scheduled for February 2016, fighting between the two camps of hard-liners and moderates will certainly intensify.

The reality is that Rafsanjani does not enjoy the support of Iran’s supreme leader, as the two have been representing separate camps, oscillating between cooperation and rejection for the last 25 years. Seeing a president with like political views and relying on his support, Rafsanjani is going too fast and has become increasingly aggressive. This, however, may ultimately amount to his fatal miscalculation. After all, Iran is a country in which Montazeri, the second-ranked architect of its system, was dismissed, isolated and placed under house arrest for several years.

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