The Jan. 8 death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani could change the balance at the top of Iran’s political establishment. Rafsanjani, who had a great influence on the Reformists and also on a large part of the conservative camp, had become an independent and moderate politician opposed to the hard-liners in recent years.
Prior to his humiliating defeat in the presidential race against hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 elections, Rafsanjani had been seen as a conservative. But after the 2005 vote, he started keeping his distance from conservatives, so that during the protests that followed Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009, he sided with the protesters and became a popular figure among the Reformists.
At his last appearance as Tehran Friday prayers leader on July 17, 2009, while the protests were ongoing, the influential ayatollah did not condemn the protests, brought up “problems” he believed had taken place during the voting process and called for restoring the people’s trust. This was met with harsh criticism from conservatives, who did all they could to stop him. He was ultimately barred from entering the 2013 presidential race, while losing out to rival Mohammad Yazdi in the competition over the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts. Yet his political influence persisted. He played an important role in limiting the power of the hard-liners, chiefly by convincing the Reformists to support Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 elections, while maneuvering to prevent the conservatives from uniting behind a single candidate.
Of the current figures on Iran’s political stage, parliament Speaker Ali Larijani is the one person who is the most similar to Rafsanjani — and especially when it comes to stopping the hard-liners. Although he is not as influential as Rafsanjani among the Reformists, his moderate approach — in comparison with other conservatives — has already won Reformists' respect.
Larijani was appointed secretary of the Supreme National Security Council in 2005, but resigned in October 2007 after a dispute with then-President Ahmadinejad. Larijani was subsequently elected parliament speaker by the conservative camp in May 2008, and in turn, politically supported the latter.
In the aftermath of the 2009 presidential elections, he, like Rafsanjani, kept his distance from the hard-liners. He asked police to be “kind to the people” and stressed people’s right to vote and their freedom to express their opinions — although he asked the protesters to draw a line between themselves and “the troublemakers.” Under his leadership, parliament appointed a committee to probe the raids on Tehran University dorms in connection with the protests, sparking harsh criticism from conservatives. Indeed, the moderate position of Larijani drew such harsh criticism that he was called a silent seditionist, meaning that he did not share Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s position on the unrest.
In 2012, Larijani was re-elected to parliament and kept his speaker's post, while further distancing himself from Ahmadinejad and the hard-liners. Over time, he became a major critic of the Ahmadinejad government’s policies and wrote critical letters about its “unlawful actions.” In response, Ahmadinejad’s supporters attacked Larijani as he was visiting the holy city of Qom in February 2012. Hard-liners threw shoes and rocks at him during a speech, which was particularly insulting since Qom is his home constituency.
Larijani’s opposition to the hard-liners became even more evident with the arrival of Rouhani to power in 2013. With Rouhani as president, Larijani vastly improved the relationship between the executive and legislative branches. He more actively confronted the previous (2012-2016) conservative-dominated parliament, as evidenced by his fierce backing of the nuclear deal. Indeed, while the parliament’s special commission for examining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action opposed it, it was Larijani who convinced a majority of legislators to approve the nuclear deal in 2015 — much to the chagrin of the hard-liners.
In the February 2016 parliamentary elections, he declared himself an independent, largely in response to conservatives who no longer wanted him in their camp. Curiously, the Reformists seized on the latter by putting him on their ticket — even though Larijani publicly announced that he had not requested it. After winning a seat, he became speaker once again — notably with the support of Rouhani, and even though the head of the moderate-Reformist ticket, Mohammad Reza Aref, had sought the position.
In the past 10 years, Larijani has consistently tried to remain nonfactional and interact with all sections of the political spectrum. He has great influence within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); the supreme leader trusts him; and he is popular among traditional clergymen. At the same time, he has maintained good relations with the Rouhani administration. Above all, he has transformed from a conservative to a moderate politician.
After the death of Rafsanjani, some commentators have opined that figures such as Seyed Hassan Khomeini (the grandson of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini), Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri (the head of the supreme leader’s inspection office) or Rouhani might follow in Rafsanjani's footsteps to be the person to put a brake on hard-liners when it comes to top-level Iranian politics. But the simple fact of the matter is that none of these three figures enjoy Rafsanjani’s influence. They aren’t popular among conservatives, they are not as close as Rafsanjani to the supreme leader and don’t have the influence Rafsanjani did in the ranks of the IRGC. All in all, they are only influential among the Reformists.
Khomeini failed to qualify for the February 2016 Assembly of Experts elections and, as widely expected, also failed to succeed Rafsanjani as chairman of Islamic Azad University’s Founders’ Committee. Instead, the supreme leader appointed his foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, to the position. Clearly the establishment is opposed to Khomeini becoming a major political player.
Nategh Nouri has been out of politics for years and was unable to play a role in recent political developments. A moderate, he has neither the necessary influence among conservatives nor Reformists. Moreover, he has repeatedly announced that he doesn’t want to return to the political arena.
Conservatives, the IRGC and the supreme leader’s inner circle have repeatedly targeted Rouhani. His disagreements with Khamenei over various issues have been leaked to the media. In this vein, it is widely believed that the hard-liners and a large part of the conservatives are trying to prevent the president's re-election in the May vote.
Larijani enjoys an entirely different position. He has played a major role at the top of Iranian politics over the past decade, though he has his weaknesses. He lacks popularity with many people, including Reformists — though it seems that moderates and Reformists both desperately need him to achieve their aims. In this vein, some Reformists have reportedly proposed the formation of a council made up of Larijani, Rouhani, Khomeini and Nategh Nouri to fill the void left by Rafsanjani. While the speaker seems best suited to take on Rafsanjani’s mantle of leadership, only time will tell what role Larijani will ultimately play.