The Return of Rafsanjani? Don’t Count on it

Some Iran observers believe Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is aiming at a political comeback, despite his denials. But the former Iranian president probably knows his chances of another crack at the office are slim, Shaul Bakhash writes.

al-monitor Iran's former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (L) attends Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 6, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi.

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khamenei, iran, ali akbar nateq nouri

Oct 10, 2012

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and grand man of politics, denied in an interview last week (Oct. 7) that he will run for president in the elections next year. But his very denial, coupled with remarks that he and men close to him have recently made, has set the rumor mills in Tehran buzzing: Rafsanjani is aiming at a comeback!

In an interview with the little-known newspaper Arman-e Ravabet-e Umumi, Rafsanjani noted that there were no legal barriers to his candidacy, but said he did not wish to run. The choice of an obscure newspaper to make this announcement was a bit odd, but the same paper ignited speculation about Rafsanjani’s presidential intentions with a front-page story five days earlier that quoted Rafsanjani as telling a close associate, Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, “I will without hesitation be on the scene for the 11th presidential elections.” Nouri, the newspaper reported, had urged Rafsanjani to respond to attacks on himself and his family — attacks, Nouri said, that were causing  concern for revolutionaries, merchants in the bazaar and members of the clergy.

“Come out openly," Nouri, a former parliament speaker and presidential candidate himself, reportedly told Rafsanjani, “and we will stand behind you.” The newspaper cited no source for this information.

Rafsanjani himself helped fuel speculation about his presidential ambitions with a recent call for a government of “national unity” that would carry out the wishes of the people, fully implement the constitution, end confrontations and address Iran’s “international problems.” A national unity government is presumably his formula for an Iran that faces division and crisis at home and the threat of attack from abroad. One of Rafsanjani’s sons, Mohsen Hashemi, has remarked that the times require “an individual fashioned for times of difficulty and crisis.” And analysts have pointed to Rafsanjani’s strengths: He is a pragmatist and a man of the center; he can still garner support from conservative but centrist religious scholars, the bazaar and the older generation of government men and he might be a credible healer of wounds and negotiator with Washington.

In his interview with Arman-e Ravabet-e Umumi, Rafsanjani downplayed any possibility that he would run, but he clearly wished to convey the impression that he was still relevant, had things to say about solving the country’s problems and could work with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Rafsanjani was speaking to the newspaper at the moment when Iran’s economy was experiencing serious disruptions from internal mismanagement and foreign sanctions, the rial was in free-fall and Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program were stalled. He expressed the view that only Khamenei as leader could redirect Iran to a correct path, and added: “We are ready to help, if he so wishes.” Rafsanjani noted that while he used to meet with Khamenei once a week, he still sees him "about once a month” but can see him more often if he wishes: “I call and go and share my thoughts,” he said. “We have no problem in our relationship. If there is something urgent, we talk on the telephone.”

Rafsanjani has been an occasional a critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confrontational style abroad and his erratic policies at home. It has not sat well with him that he has been marginalized, that his generation of revolutionary leaders have been replaced by the new men who came to power under Ahmadinejad and that the president has pursued policies that, in his view, have led the country in the wrong direction both at home and abroad. In recent interviews and speeches, Rafsanjani, who served two terms as president from 1989–1997, has adopted the tone of the elder statesman, troubled by the wrong path country seems to be taking.

In his newspaper interview, he recalled that he had warned in a major address two years ago and in an earlier letter to Khamenei of the negative fallout of Ahmadinejad’s policies. In his remarks to veterans and women’s groups, he has blamed the country's ills on the absence in positions of responsibility of individuals with experience. In an obvious reference to the new men at the helm and the bitter intra-elite feuding of the last few years, he noted with regret that while “the radicals and acrobats” have not succeeded in “destroying experienced managers, dedicated ulama and university scholars, they have isolated and marginalized them.” 

Yet Rafsanjani probably knows better than anyone else that his chances of a comeback, let alone another crack at presidency, are slim. He has lost much of his former power and influence. In 2000, during the heyday of the reformist movement under Mohammad Khatami, Rafsanjani ran for a parliament seat from Tehran, expecting to emerge as the top vote-getter and to be elected as speaker, a position he occupied from 1981–89. But he was shunned by the reformists and barely managed to win a seat, at the very bottom of the Tehran list, and then only with some electoral hanky-panky. Humiliated, he did not occupy his seat. 

In 2005, he ran for president, but was defeated by Ahmadinejad. Afterward, Khamenei, noting his 50-year friendship with Rafsanjani, nevertheless said in a sermon that his own views were closer to those of Ahmadinejad — an endorsement of the president and a put-down for Rafsanjani. In 2011, he failed to be re-elected as chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects the supreme leader. By his own admission, the Expediency Council, which he heads and which is supposed to advise the leader on major issues of policy and mediate between the parliament and the Council of Guardians, a constitutional watchdog body, no longer has the influence it once wielded. 

Rafsanjani also has many enemies, not only among the new ruling elites but also among the hardliners of the old guard who will work hard to block his return to a position of influence. There were attempts after the protests that followed the contested 2009 presidential elections to taint Rafsanjani with the “dissident current” label attached to the opposition Green Movement, whose two leaders have been under house arrest since February 2011. A day after the first story about his possible entry in the presidential contest appeared in Arman-e Ravabet-e Umumi, a member of the parliamentary committee considering revisions in the electoral law proposed an age limit of 75 for presidential candidates. Rafsanjani is 77 — at least. 

In September, Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh began serving a six-month sentence at Evin Prison on some trumped-up charge and his son Mehdi returned from Europe only to be whisked away to prison for allegedly supporting the 2009 election protests. Rafsanjani’s reputation as a wily politician remains so strong that some analysts read even these arrests as part of a carefully designed plan to clear the decks — his son and daughter would face the charges against them and serve inconsequential prison sentences before he ran for president. In Iran, however, a powerful man is expected to be able at least to protect his own children. Asked about these arrests, Rafsanjani said he asked for no special treatment but also for no discrimination against his children. His son should not be maligned before he is even formally charged. He seemed to be speaking in resignation rather than by calculation. 

The Rafsanjani family’s extensive business dealings have made him hugely wealthy. But his wealth and business interests also render him vulnerable. The sword of Damocles that hangs over his head is the possible dismantling of his business empire, or charges of corruption against him or members of his family. Earlier this year, the government replaced a Rafsanjani protégé as head of Azad University — the country’s largest institution of higher education and a Rafsanjani family business — with its own appointee. Rafsanjani failed to block the move. 

Most important, Khamenei is highly unlikely to acquiesce in a Rafsanjani presidency, or even a Rafsanjani candidacy. When Rafsanjani became president and Khamenei supreme leader after the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989, the two men constituted a duumvirate at the top of the power apex in Iran — but it was Rafsanjani who was initially in command. Khamenei eventually out-maneuvered Rafsanjani. In recent years, Khamenei has been careful to keep Rafsanjani by his side, even as he has shorn him of real power or any say in the conduct of affairs. Khamenei will make sure he keeps things that way. 

Shaul Bakhash is a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of a 1984 book on the Iranian revolution, The Reign of the Ayatollahs.

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