Rafsanjani’s Death is a Total Blow to Iran’s Reform Movement

OPINION 16.01.2017

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the expediency discernment council, a main founder of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and a former president of Iran, died on Sunday in Tehran, marking a major turning point for the country. He was one of the biggest players in Iranian politics following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the regime and Ali Khamenei, the current Supreme Leader. In his 37 years of political life, Rafsanjani earned many nicknames, among them “a pillar of the revolution,” “the Shark,” “black box of the regime” and “the killer of dissidents.” Rafsanjani was elected speaker of the Majlis from 1980 to 1989, and served as president from 1989 to 1997. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988), he was appointed acting commander in chief of the armed forces and was credited with persuading Khomeini to accept UN resolution 598 that called on Iran and Iraq to observe an immediate ceasefire and discontinue all military actions, a decision Khomeini called “drinking from the poisoned chalice.”  

Rafsanjani’s death came as a total surprise; according to his family and Mohsen Rezaei, former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, he was very healthy. Although it is necessary to wait for more details concerning the circumstances of his passing, there are many indications that make his death suspicious. During recent years, disputes emerged between Rafsanjani and the supreme leader Ali Khamenei when the latter supported Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani’s opponent in the controversial 2005 presidential elections. Khamenei's massive support for Ahmadinejad in the election was significant. During the presidential campaign, reportedly ordered by Khamenei, the military and security forces targeted Rafsanjani with vicious attacks enabling Ahmadinejad to be elected president. Rafsanjani expressed his dissatisfaction with the result of the election and the fact that military and security forces, as well as the Guardian Council of the Constitution (Shora-ye Negahban-e Qanun-e Assassi), purportedly nonpartisan, sided with Ahmadinejad. To further isolate Rafsanjani, Khamenei managed to expel Rafsanjani from the Chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, referred to by its Persian name Majlis-e Khobregan. Consequently, Khamenei encouraged his allies to publicly discredit Rafsanjani, saying that he was not fit for his position as the chairman of Majlis-e Khobregan. Reportedly, Khamenei also urged members of Khobregan to not cast their ballots for Rafsanjani. Additionally, he was removed from the position of Chancellor of the Islamic Azad University.

Khamenei’s critical position toward Rafsanjani was a dual-edge strategy. It not only pleased his hardline allies, but also limited Rafsanjani’s maneuvers. In the meantime, it mobilized the hardliners and security forces to aggressively confront reformists and the moderation current. After the 2009 controversial elections, Khamenei launched an unprecedented attack on Rafsanjani, describing him as an “indiscreet elite” (Khawas-e Bi Basirat), opening the door for hardliners to attack Rafsanjani from every corner. For instance, in one particular case, Kayhan newspaper, the mouthpiece of Khamenei called Rafsanjani “an infected and malignant tumor.” Hardline Rajanews wrote “The leader of the internal current which aims to weaken the defense capabilities of the country is Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. … Toleration to the compromisers has come to an end.” Rafsanjani was at odds with Khamenei over some issues, among them imposing strict controls on political and social liberties and the country’s relations with the West, particularly the United States. Rafsanjani believed that interaction with the United States is a prerequisite for the regime’s survival. But the supreme leader, on the contrary, views the relations with the US as the end of the Islamic Revolution. Rafsanjani’s critics made him a target for both the hardliners and security forces. The hardliners believed that Rafsanjani’s agenda was to undercut the supreme leader on matters where Khamenei would prefer ideology over national interest. Rafsanjani preferred pragmatism and reform to keep the ruling system in power, a preference that Khamenei considered to be a threat to his ruling system. In a final put-down in his condolence message, Khamenei diminished Rafsanjani’s religious title of Ayatollah to the lower Hojjatoleslam, saying that “With pity and regret, I received the news of sudden demise of my old friend and comrade and companion during the time of Islamic struggles, and close colleague in long years during the period of the Islamic Republic, Hojjatoleslam Hajj Sheikh Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.”

What is clear is that with the demise of Rafsanjani, the future of Iran and moderation would doom to a period of uncertainty. It was with Rafsanjani’s public support that Rouhani managed to create a coalition to win the elections four years ago. The endorsement by Rafsanjani boosted Rouhani’s chance to win the election by holding off a support declaration and persuading Mohammad Reza Aref, another reformist candidate, to withdraw from the race to avoid a split vote. Without Rafsanjani, Rouhani would have found it extremely difficult to gain the same level of support he received in 2013 As one commentator noted, Rafsanjani’s absence will be the start of a period of anxiety for the moderate forces and would change the current fragile balance of power in Iran in favor of the hardliners while marginalizing moderate forces. “It is a very powerful reminder that Iran is at the beginning of a major leadership transition that will play a very psychological role in Iran’s politics,” said Vali R. Nasr, a Middle East scholar who is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rafsanjani was also a member of the Majlis-e Khobregan, which is responsible for appointing the country’s next supreme leader. Considering Khamenei is 77 years old and rumored to be in poor health, Majlis-e Khobregan may soon play a decisive role in determining the country’s future. While many inside and outside of Iran had hoped that Rafsanjani would exert considerable influence in electing the next, and moderate, supreme leader, his death dashed all of those hopes. With Rafsanjani gone, hardliners will face no challenge in electing their own hardline cleric as the next supreme leader.

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