Debunking the Rafsanjani myth

The former hero of the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been consumed by his own mythos and cast out.

Run-Off Voting In Iranian Presidential Elections
Ayatollah Khamenei, once a close friend of former President Rafsanjani, may banish him from the ruling elite [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – Iran’s parliamentary election is to be held on March 2, but the political future of the country will be determined before the election. At the end of this month, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will decide whether to remove Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – one of the most powerful figures during the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, who served as parliament speaker and then as president – from the last official position he holds, and to banish him from the ruling elite of Iran.

Rafsanjani has been the chairman of the Expediency Council – the advisory arm of Iran’s leadership tasked with resolving the regime’s problems and the disputes between legislative branches – for three consecutive five-year terms. His term is nearing its end and media outlets close to Khamenei have predicted that he will have no chance to hold this position again.

The regular meetings between Rafsanjani and Khamenei which for many years used to take place every Tuesday evening are no longer in the schedule. The 77-year-old Rafsanjani – five years older than Khamenei – has repeatedly made it known that he is in disagreement with the leader over how the country is run. He has also held the Supreme Leader accountable for the political situation that has been ongoing in the country since the disputed 2009 presidential election and has repeatedly said the leader is the is only person who “can solve the problems that ensued [after the election]”.

Khamenei’s clique accuse Rafsanjani of supporting the opposition – known as the Green Movement – which was born after the 2009 presidential election. Efat Maraashi, Rafsanjani’s wife, was the first person to, in an interview on election day, order the people to take to the streets if the vote was rigged. A group of senior members of Hashemi’s Executives of Construction Party, including Hossein Marashi, Mrs Rafsanjani’s cousin, were detained after the elections.

Rafsanjani called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press … Last month, Rafsanjani’s official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for its refusal to remove the transcription of the sermon.

In his famous Friday Prayers sermon coinciding with the 2009 summer protests, in a choked voice, Rafsanjani called for national reconciliation, the release of political prisoners and freedom of the press. That there were an estimated 1.5 million worshippers attending that Friday Prayer was covetable to Khamenei. Last month, Rafsanjani’s official website was blocked by the Iranian judiciary for its refusal to remove the transcription of the sermon.

Two leaders and a Leader

Rafsanjani’s star has been declining for some time now. Last year he could not garner the necessary support to become speaker of the Assembly of Experts – which, on paper, supervises the Supreme Leader – and he decided to withdraw his candidacy before the vote. A few days prior to the vote, his daughter, Faezeh was allegedly harassed by a group of Khamenei’s supporters, affiliated to the Basij militia, who shouted profane sexual insults about her and her father.

Last month, Faezeh was sentenced to six months in prison for an interview after the incident in which, without naming Iran’s leader, claimed he approved of the incident. Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi, who is wanted in Iran, has been living abroad for two years. Last year his other son, Mohsen, was removed from his position as manager of the Tehran Metro project after 13 years.

In another incident, after six years of conflict between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani over the Islamic Azad University – the largest educational institution in the Middle East, which generates massive revenues and has hundreds of branches across Iran – the game ended in the president’s favour with the green light reportedly given by Khamenei.

In the past year, significant quarrels have occurred between the Supreme Leader and Ahmadinejad, and he has tried to limit the president’s power and to prevent the president’s supporters from winning in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But when it comes to choosing between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, Khamenei prefers to rid himself of his “friend of more than 50 years” – even if the price he pays is seeing Ahmadinejad become more powerful.

In 2005, Ahmadinejad based his presidential campaign and won by attacking Rafsanjani. But many ordinary people – even those who had voted for Ahmadinejad out of resentment for Rafsanjani – were waiting for Ahmadinejad to fall on his face. The running joke was that Rafsanjani would be inaugurating a new highway in Tehran named “Martyr Ahmadinejad” – a reference to the unwritten tradition in the regime to sometimes praise its opponents after they are eliminated.

The man behind the revolution

At the time, Rafsanjani was still considered the man who defuses crises. Ahmadinejad had crossed paths with the most powerful, cunning and mysterious politician in Iran, the man who the regime owed its existence to. It was Rafsanjani who, in the first years following the 1979 revolution, rid the clergy of their rivals. He rid Abulhassan Banisadr, the first post-revolution president, from the scene and successfully confronted the militant organisation People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK). In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, he was undisputedly trusted by Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of Iran, and played a role that exceeded that of a Majlis Speaker. At the time of internal conflict and the strife between the country’s armed forces, Rafsanjani took over command of the war with Iraq. In the arms deal with the US – known as the Iran-Contra scandal – Rafsanjani was involved. It was he who, in 1988, convinced Khomeini to end the war with Iraq.

In the first decade of the Islamic Republic, he was undisputedly trusted by Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of Iran.

To berate him, people called him “Kooseh” – in Farsi, this means both a person who has no beard, and a shark (which is an icon of brilliance and brutality). Interestingly, the beardless Rafsanjani symbolised an ancient tradition in Iran and the Middle East: “Pawning one’s beard”, which is mediation to resolve disputes. In the first two decades of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani repeatedly acted to resolve the differences between the left and right factions in the regime.

These actual examples of Rafsanjani’s power and influence helped create a daunting phantom of him in society. Rafsanjani himself liked the intimidating reputation. He used the rumours surrounding him to increase his influence and in making backdoor deals.

The public memory of Rafsanjani was bigger than his true persona. He was considered the symbol of wealth and corruption in society. He was fairly wealthy before the revolution, as he came from a family of pistachio grove owners in the Kerman Province. But after the revolution, rumours began to fly about his and his children’s extravagant lifestyle. In the belief of society, he was the owner of all the lush lands of northern Iran near the Caspian Sea and Kish Island in the Gulf. He had billions of dollars stashed away in secret Swiss bank accounts. He was the owner of international companies, such as Starbucks and even Canadian highways. Rafsanjani was the epitome of power and ruthlessness. He was believed responsible for executing thousands of political prisoners in the summer of 1988, he was the man who was thought to have ordered Iran’s intelligence service to carry out the serial murders of Iranian intellectuals in the 1990s. In short, he cultivated his reputation as the jack of all trades in the Islamic Republic.

All the light that should have shone on the Islamic Republic’s ruling elite was focused on him. He became the Islamic Republic’s scapegoat, because he was considered the man giving all the orders. The ruling elite called him the “pillar of the establishment”, but for the people, he was the godfather of the establishment. People called him Akbar Shah.

The victory of reformists and the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 was because of Rafsanjani’s timely warning ahead of the presidential election, preventing voter fraud. But the reformists – hesitant at the time to take on Iran’s Supreme Leader – instead targeted Akbar Shah – as if he was the only obstacle preventing democracy in Iran.

The bogeyman of Tehran

In the sixth Majlis election in 2000, Rafsanjani ran as a candidate for Tehran. His victory could have meant becoming Majlis Speaker. Ahead of the elections, journalist Akbar Ganji, in an article published in the radical reformist daily Sobh-e Emrouz named Rafsanjani “The Red Eminence” – a title given to Cardinal Richelieu, Louis XIII’s prime minister, who was reputed to be more powerful than the king, and ruthless in silencing his opponents.

Radical reformist media presented Rafsanjani as the man responsible for the serial murders of Iranian intellectuals. Among the 30 seats for Tehran in Majlis, he came in last. The veteran politician, who resolutely resisted all attacks during the election campaign, issued a statement and withdrew his candidacy.

It appeared at first that the reformists had won, but … the real winner was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Reformists wanted to magnify a frightening image of Rafsanjani, but these attacks conversely also demonstrated his limited power. It appeared at first that the reformists had won, but Rafsanjani’s fall from his position in the hierarchy of power, where he negotiated deals behind the scene and neutralised extremists, came at a great loss for them.

The real winner was Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had lived in the shadow of Akbar Shah’s power for a decade, and now wanted to come out from under it.

It was Rafsanjani who cunningly made his then friend Ali Khamenei – who had the slimmest of chances – the Supreme Leader of Iran. Maybe it was a sign of gratitude that the new leader said he had been praying for Rafsanjani “by name and at least once every day and sometimes more”.

Throughout Rafsanjani’s presidency in the 1990s, his strong character prevented Khamenei from flexing his muscles. Rafsanjani, who had the dream of becoming the hero of economic and social reconstruction in Iran, in many cases ignored Khamenei’s proposals and pushed ahead with his own agenda. In his farewell meeting with the Rafsanjani cabinet on July 31, 1997, the Supreme Leader said that, although sometimes his suggestions were ignored, he considered it his duty to support Rafsanjani. Of course, in some cases, Khamenei managed to have his way. In an interview last year, Rafsanjani claimed he wanted to normalise Iran-US relations, but the Supreme Leader prevented him. Khameni had been preparing himself for a confrontation with Rafsanjani from that moment. In 1996, Rafsanjani realised that Iran’s intelligence ministry – one of the few bodies under the supervision of the Supreme Leader – had bugged his office. After a few days of escalating tension, the incident was blamed on the then-minister of intelligence, in order to settle the matter – at least in appearance. 

A case of historical determinism?

But Iran’s Supreme Leader used the myth of Rafsanjani to gain power of his own. During the 2009 presidential election, Ahmadinejad repeatedly summoned the spectre of Rafsanjani. In his election debates, he called his rivals “Rafsanjani’s puppets”. Despite Rafsanjani’s complaints, Khamenei – with a silence indicating at least tacit approval – observed the attacks. Khamenei’s supporters blamed Rafsanjani for most of the widespread corruption, social inequality and the spread of promiscuity.

Although publishing books by Akbar Ganji – a counterrevolutionary dissident journalist who no longer lives in Iran – is banned, his Red Eminence– which is a collection of articles written against Rafsanjani – is still reprinted with the regime’s permission. This shows how much the supporters of Khamenei needed the attacks by radical reformists on Rafsanjani. He had to be weakened but not eliminated. His frail body unstoppably hemorrhaging from the arrows of criticism falling on him had to be kept alive, so that Khamenei could gain his power by nourishing the myth.

One of the mysteries that will occupy the minds of Iran history researchers in later decades will be about how Rafsanjani came to fall for the trap.

One of the mysteries that will occupy the minds of Iran history researchers in later decades will be about how Rafsanjani came to fall for the trap, and why he could not find a way to free himself from it. Rafsanjani himself has given the simplest answer to this question: He considers himself like a mother to the Islamic Republic regime. After he lost the 2005 presidential elections to Ahmadinejad, due to the use of influence by Khamenei’s supporters in the election, Rafsanjani announced that he did not want to blow the whistle on election issues, “as I do not want the revolution to be harmed”.

Perhaps Rafsanjani’s situation is the product of historical determinism, in the creation of which he was involved. His neoliberal development policies in the 1990s created such resentment in the hearts of part of the middle and lower classes of society that they turned to Ahmadinejad. In 2005, intellectuals failed in their hasty campaigning to convince the people that the government of corrupt developmentalists was better than a clean but incompetent one.

But now Ahmadinejad’s clean reputation has been tarnished with a $2.6 billion embezzlement case – the largest ever in the contemporary history of Iran – and the bubble of Rafsanjani’s legendary power has burst. Society has had time to, little-by-little, see a more realistic picture of what was behind the facade of Rafsanjani: The man who, despite intense pressure in the past two years, has refused to support the Supreme Leader in order to stay in power. While there is much criticism about Rafsanjani’s conduct in the past, a general belief is taking shape that this veteran politician, despite his deceitful ways, is a nationalist at heart who values the progress of Iran and wants to see it become a powerful country.

Waiting for the comeback?

There are still pundits who are waiting for Rafsanjani to cunningly and skillfully change the power play at the right time, and to save Iran from its current political and economic turmoil. They are waiting to applaud Rafsanjani and say “well grubbed old mole”. During the past few weeks, a number of reformist politicians have emphasised on the mediating role that Rafsanjani could play to reconcile Khamenei with the opposition. Such a role, if granted, would be the last for him. Borrowing from the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s terminology, Rafsanjani could be a “vanishing mediator” – the moment he resolves the conflict, he would no longer be required on Iran’s political stage. 

In his last two meetings with the Supreme Leader, Rafsanaji urged Khamenei to appease the opposition and let them participate in upcoming parliamentary elections. Of course, Khamenei refused. In return, Rafsanjani refused to encourage people to participate in the elections, and publicly called for elections in which “all groups and individuals can compete in a fair and just manner”.

If Khamenei does not approve Rafsanjani’s presidency of the Expediency Council, it will mean he feels powerful enough not to keep Rafsanjani as a scarecrow, or that he has realised this scarecrow does not scare anyone anymore. But eliminating this old friend may come at an unanticipated cost for Khamenei. With the help of a corrupt judge such as Fouquiere, Robespierre eliminated Danton from the political scene, but before long became the victim of the very people he had brought to power.

Khamenei has expressed publicly that he is very interested in studying the history of the French Revolution. But reading history does not necessarily mean that tragedy will not repeat itself in the form of comedy. Ayatollah Khomeini once said that the “revolution is alive as long as Rafsanjani is alive”. This February was the 33rd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, but Rafsanjani was absent from the cheery commemorations and celebratory TV programmes.

That said, it is no coincidence that his name and photo can also no longer be found in the latest iteration of their history textbooks.

Ali Reza Eshraghi was a senior editor at several of Iran’s reformist dailies. He is currently Media and Communication Consultant at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) and a Rotary World Peace fellow in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Yasaman Baji is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist based in Tehran whose writing has appeared in IWPR and Inter Press Service (IPS).