Rafsanjani and Khamenei: A brief history

The two men may have a long history together, but they’ve gone from being staunch allies to fierce competitors.

Iranian demonstrators walk past a pictur
A friendship that predates the 1979 revolution in Iran, has turned into a rivalry [AFP]

This article is part one of a three part series. As President Hassan Rouhani’s debut at the United Nations General Assembly approaches, we take a look back at Iran’s political trajectory post-revolution through the words of Akbar Ganji, one of Iran’s most prominent political dissidents. 

The rise of Rafsanjani

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have been two prominent figures in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their friendship goes back two decades prior to the Islamic Revolution and their alliance has been quite decisive in the present power hierarchy of the Islamic Republic. At present, however, they seem to be at odds with each other, with Rafsanjani’s eye on Khamenei’s Office. Their relationship in the context of the foundation of the Islamic Republic will provide a better understanding of Iranian politics.

Rafsanjani (born 1934) was a student and disciple of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a major opposition figure to the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the victory of the Islamic Revolution in February 1979, he became one of the regime’s most powerful statesmen. In the fall of 1978, when Ayatollah Khomeini announced in Paris, the formation of the Islamic Revolutionary Council, Rafsanjani, as one of the most influential decision makers in Khomeini’s inner circle, suggested Khamenei. After Khomeini’s approval, Khamenei who was living in Mashhad in northeast Iran, was brought to Tehran and joined the council. When the Shah’s regime was toppled, Khamenei, along with Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammad Beheshti (the first judiciary chief after the revolution), Ayatollah Abdolkarim Mosavi Ardabili (the judiciary chief after Beheshti who is now close to the reformists), and Hojatoleslam Mohammad Javad Bahonar (who was appointed the Prime Minister in the summer of 1981) formed the Islamic Republic Party, the dominant political group in the 1980s.

Shortly after the first presidential election in early 1980, and the election of Abolhasan Bani-Sadr, both Rafsanjani and Khamenei were elected as members of Majles [parliament] in the spring of 1980, and Rafsanjani won a majority of the votes to become Speaker. But squabbling broke out almost immediately, ending with Bani-Sadr’s impeachment by the Majles and dismissal from the presidency in June 1981; he escaped from Iran the following month. A period of chaos ensued. Confrontations among the few existing parties rapidly escalated and led to a huge bomb explosion in the Islamic Republic Party’s headquarters on June 28, 1981. It was officially announced that 72 people, including Beheshti, four ministers, and 27 members of the parliament, were killed, although the actual number of people killed is believed to be about 120.

I would treat anyone whose name emerges from the ballot box as I treated Rafsanjani during these eight years, though no one would be another Rafsanjani for me.

by - Ayatollah Khamenei

On August 30, 1981, another bomb exploded in the office of Prime Minister Bahonar that killed him and the newly-elected president Mohammad Ali Rajaie. The Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organisation (MEK) took responsibility for both the assassinations. Indeed, its leader, Masoud Rajavi, boasted in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Watan al-Arabi that he and his organisation had killed some 2000 people across Iran. The MEK had also tried to assassinate Ayatollah Khamenei during a press conference shortly before the explosion in the party’s headquarters. He survived, but lost the use of an arm.

Rafsanjani wrote in his memoir on September 15, 1981 that: “His Eminence Khamenei came to my office in the afternoon. I convinced him to accept [to run for] the presidency.” Khamenei was elected president on October 2, 1981.

During Khamenei’s presidency, Rafsanjani was a highly powerful and influential figure. There was no way that Khamenei could compete with him. Khomeini passed away on June 3, 1989 and the Assembly of Experts, a constitutional body that elects the Supreme Leader, convened the next day to elect a new leader. Rafsanjani, as head of the Assembly, recalled a few anecdotes about Khomeini and claimed it was his belief that the most qualified person to fill the position was none other than Khamenei. He then managed to convince the members of the Assembly to elect him as the Supreme Leader. It is very likely that Rafsanjani thought that Khamenei would stay in that position only as a figurehead, much like Queen Elizabeth II of the UK, and that he himself would govern the country as the regime’s strong man.

Making of a Velayat-e-Faqih

During this period, many of the Marja’s [sources of emulation for the masses], especially Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and many others from the left wing of the regime [that are now known as the reformists] opposed the appointment, but Rafsanjani managed to convince them to live with it. He also insisted that Khamenei be given the title of “Leader of the Revolution”, a title previously held by Khomeini.

Article 57, an amendment to the Constitution, was added during this period, according to which all branches of government and governmental organisations and institutions came under the control of the office of Velayat-e- Faqih [the supreme Islamic jurist], the Supreme Leader. The post of prime minister was abolished and its responsibilities were delegated to the president. On June 14, 1989, members of the Majles and Rafsanjani visited Khamenei to make a covenant with him. In that meeting, Khamenei supported the candidacy of Rafsanjani for president.

Khamenei not only would consult with Rafsanjani on all governmental affairs, but would even go to his office personally for advice in reaching any decision. The presidential election was held on  July 28, 1989 and Rafsanjani was elected with 95 percent of the vote. His cabinet was selected in complete coordination with Khamenei.

But, Khamenei did not want to be just a figurehead. He wanted to be an absolute ruler. Rafsanjani had already miscalculated by agreeing that the Ministries of Information, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Higher Education, and Culture and Islamic Guidance should be selected with the Supreme Leader’s approval. In this way, Rafsanjani, knowingly or unknowingly, had given all the powerful ministries to Khamenei and paved the way for him to gain what he wanted: more power. Meanwhile hile he managed the economy.

The Rafsanjani administration made improving the economy the top priority. His critics said that he made the country dependent on the destructive policies of the World Bank and the International Monitory Fund. In his second term as president, his economic plan and management became the target of Khamenei’s criticism. Time and again fraud, abuse, and corruption in the government, and oligarchy and social justice became the central topics of Khamenei’s speeches.

After Rafsanjani’s second term as president, cleric Ali Akbar Nateq Noori, who was the Majles Speaker and favoured by Khamenei, ran against Mohammad Khatami in the presidential election of May 23, 1997. The people voted for Khatami, however, in a landslide victory This was a harsh defeat for Khamenei and his candidate, but in his speech after he cast his ballot on election day, he said: “I would treat anyone whose name emerges from the ballot box as I treated Rafsanjani during these eight years, though no one would be another Rafsanjani for me.”

This was a clear indication that, despite Khamenei’s increasing power and Rafsanjani’s decline, as well as the emergence of some disagreement between the two men, Rafsanjani was still, by and large, Khamenei’s closest ally. He appointed Rafsanjani as the head of the Expediency Discernment Council, a constitutional body that arbitrates the disputes between the Majles and the Guardian Council, and advises the Supreme Leader.

Part two to be published on Wednesday September 25. 

Translated by Mina Zand Siegel and edited by Muhammad Sahimi.

Akbar Ganji is one of Iran’s leading political dissidents and has received over a dozen human rights awards for his efforts. Imprisoned in Iran until 2006, he is author of one book in English, The Road to Democracy in Iran, which lays out a strategy for a nonviolent transition to democracy in Iran.