TEHRAN, Iran — Since his Aug. 3 announcement that he intends to run in the upcoming Assembly of Experts elections, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani is once again dominating headlines in Iran. Predictably, the two-time president and current Expediency Council chairman’s move has prompted a backlash from hard-liners. While most players in Tehran expected Rafsanjani to run, few anticipated that he would make his decision public this early. The Assembly of Experts elections aren’t slated to be held until February.
The Assembly of Experts is in charge of supervising the performance of the Supreme Leader and also to elect his successor. Members of this clerical body are elected from lists of candidates by direct public vote for eight-year terms.
Rafsanjani, who unexpectedly lost the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts to conservative Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi in March 2015, is now expressing a firm intent to win the elections, explicitly declaring that “anyone who has an Islamic and national responsibility must prepare themselves to have a presence in the elections.”
Conservatives, who dominate the Assembly of Experts, are anxious about losing seats due to the Iranian public’s increasingly favorable view of moderates — making these elections more sensitive than in the past. Hard-liners, shocked at 80-year-old Rafsanjani's determination, have launched a wave of attacks, hoping to force him to take a step back while alienating him from the public. In this vein, they have recently launched the “I’m a villager” campaign, targeting Rafsanjani over recent statements he made in an interview with Toloue Sobh weekly.
“I’m proud to have understood the Imam [Ruhollah Khomeini]. Those who didn’t understand him and asked who will be held accountable for the blood [of the dead], and those who used to say fighting [the Shah’s regime] was forbidden should think about themselves,” Rafsanjani said in response to a question about Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, the spiritual leader of the hard-liners. In a clear reference to Mesbah Yazdi and the hard-liners, Rafsanjani added, “Some of them were revolutionary, but when the [Shah’s] regime’s crackdown intensified, they didn’t continue the fight. Some of them weren’t active and used to wander in the lanes of their villages, but now they have become active and revolutionary.”
This remark, they “used to wander in the lanes of their villages,” has now turned into the hard-liners' rallying call for attacks on Rafsanjani. In past weeks, conservative news agencies, news sites and figures have all adopted a harsh stance against him. Hard-line outlet Vatan-e-Emrooz wrote, “Akbar Rafsanjani, who previously used insulting and degrading allusions for his critics, has offended villagers, too,” while referring to him as Hojat al-Islam, one clerical rank below Ayatollah, in an attempt to humiliate him.
Meanwhile, Ruhollah Hosseinian, a hardline MP, told Fars News, “These statements reflect the arrogant mood and character of Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani].” Separately, Hamid Rasaei, another hardline MP and critic of Rafsanjani, took a picture of himself holding a sign that said: “Mr. Hashemi [Rafsanjani], I’m proud to be a villager.” Moderate and reformist outlets have since ridiculed Rasaei, saying that unlike Rafsanjani, who hails from an actual village, Rasaei comes from the capital, Tehran.
The bigger picture is that the performance of President Hassan Rouhani — considered a protege of Rafsanjani — has yielded increasing public support for Rafsanjani. Thus, it appears that the events of the past weeks are designed to weaken Rafsanjani's public standing ahead of the February elections.
Mohammad Javad Haghshenas, a Reformist political analyst, told Al-Monitor, “I believe the new attacks against Ayatollah Rafsanjani are rooted in his decision to run in the elections. Hard-liners, who have a shaky position in Iranian politics, are seeking to maintain their position in the Assembly of Experts. Therefore, one of their strategies is to denigrate Ayatollah Rafsanjani.”
Despite the sniping, some say Rafsanjani's reputation won’t be tarnished. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Hossein Kanaani Moghadam, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander turned political activist, said, “Ayatollah Rafsanjani's character won’t be easily damaged. The best person who can judge him is the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], who has been his comrade from before the  Islamic Revolution. Those who claim they are followers of the Supreme Leader should keep silent until he states his positions about Ayatollah Rafsanjani.”
Others argue that the attacks will only serve to boost Rafsanjani's popularity, owing to the public’s negative view of hard-liners who helped former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rise to power. Haghshenas, the Reformist political analyst, told Al-Monitor, “Hard-liners are not welcomed by the people, so their actions against Rafsanjani will strengthen him. If anyone is criticized by the hard-liners, not only will their position not be weakened, but new opportunities will arise that can aid an increase in their popularity.”
Amid the attacks, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rafsanjani’s son, has gone to Evin prison to begin serving a 10-year sentence over corruption charges. This has prompted some to tie this prison sentence to the senior Rafsanjani’s candidacy announcement.
Indeed, two days before going to prison, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani wrote, “I told my father that the announcement of his nomination would have two results: The election competition will be heated, and I will go to prison.” In response, the conservative Fars News agency wrote: “Mehdi Hashemi [Rafsanjani’s] sentence was issued a few months ago, and is not related to Ayatollah Rafsanjani's candidacy for the Assembly of Experts elections.”
Rafsanjani’s outspokenness — amid Rouhani’s successes — appears to be granting him increasing public support. Nevertheless, sniping will likely intensify in the weeks and months ahead. Sadegh Zibakalam, an outspoken political science professor at the University of Tehran, told a local newspaper, “Be certain; as we are approaching the elections, the current status will be maintained and the attacks against Ayatollah Rafsanjani will be stepped up.”
On Aug. 14, Tehran’s interim Friday prayers leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, alluded to Rafsanjani, saying: “The Assembly of Experts elections are more important than the parliamentary ones. … There is this concern that some want to politicize the Assembly of Experts elections and do whatever they want to do when they get in there [in the Assembly]. If they succeed … they will cause problems for the Establishment and the Revolution.” For Rafsanjani, the sniping appears to only be the beginning and not the end.