Rafsanjani and Khamenei: The Ahmadinejad years

By 2009, the relationship between the two men hit rock bottom, with Rafsanjani firmly moving into the reformist camp.

Ali Khamenei Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
During the 2005 presidential elections, Khamenei's allies, using personal attacks against Rafsanjani, all but assured an Ahmadinejad victory [AP]

This article is part two 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.

You can read part one here

Mohammad Khatami’s era, known as the Reform Period, was the golden age of publishing – books, newspapers, etc. – during which the press was given enough freedom to criticise and, of course, Hashemi Rafsanjani became the main target of the criticisms. As a candidate from Tehran in the 2000 parliamentary elections, Rafsanjani was elected with the fewest votes, and was forced to resign due to rumours regarding the authenticity of those votes.

Rafsanjani entered the presidential race in 2005, running against a few reformist candidates, as well as some fundamentalist and conservative ones. The elections went into the second round in which he faced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While many reformists, sensing the gravity of the situation if Ahmadinejad won, supported him, Ahmadinejad still won the election with massive support from the conservatives. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s support was quite decisive in the election.

It appeared that his son, Mojtaba, had controlled and run the elections in order to produce the result that Khamenei desired, namely, an Ahmadinejad victory. During the campaign Rafsanjani was the target of vicious attacks and, with the help of the military and security forces (the Basij militia and the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps), Ahmadinejad was elected president. After the elections, former Speaker of the Majles Mehdi Karoubi, himself a candidate, wrote an open letter to Khamenei complaining about his son’s interference, and resigned in protest from the Expediency Discernment Council. Rafsanjani also complained about the election and expressed his dissatisfaction with the Guardian Council’s siding with Ahmadinejad, which is supposed to be nonpartisan, saying he would take his complaint to God.

Ahmadinejad’s first term ‘best since 1911’

Rafsanjani did not expect this degree of opposition from Khamenei and the conservatives. Worse still, he did not expect their support to be thrown behind a minor figure like Ahmadinejad, for such an important post as the presidency. Conservatives claimed that if Rafsanjani had been elected president, all the achievements brought about by the revolution would have been ruined and a “mafia” of corrupt profiteers would have been in charge of the country.

Khamenei chose to support Ahmadinejad very openly; to this end, he went so far as to call his government the best since the days of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. A year before his first term ended, Khamenei even told Ahmadinejad to prepare himself for a second term.

With the political tide against him, Rafsanjani did not want to run for the Assembly of Experts in 2006, and in particular its chairmanship, for which he had to compete against hardline cleric and Secretary-General of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati. But Khamenei asked him to run and Rafsanjani accepted, provided that Khamenei would stop the personal attacks. Khamenei accepted the precondition, Rafsanjani ran as a candidate from Tehran and, in the absence of organised harassments and harsh criticisms, he easily won and was voted the head of the Council.

From the beginning of Ahmadinejad’s first term, Rafsanjani aimed all his criticisms at him. But, Khamenei chose to support Ahmadinejad very openly; to this end, he went so far as to call his government the best since the days of the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911. A year before his first term ended, Khamenei even told Ahmadinejad to prepare himself for a second term.

The next presidential election took place on June 12, 2009. Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and Karoubi were Ahmadinejad’s main challengers. But, during the nationally-televised presidential debates Ahmadinejad called Mousavi, Karoubi and Khatami marionettes played by Rafsanjani, and accused him and his family of corruption. Rafsanjani wrote a strong protest letter(Pr.) to Khamenei.

Ahmadinejad’s second term

The Interior Ministry and Guardian Council declared Ahmadinejad the winner with close to 25 million votes. Huge demonstrations broke out in the streets, and the Green Movement was born. On election day, Effat Marashi, Rafsanjani’s wife, said that(Pr.) Mousavi was going to win the election, but “if they [the government] cheat, pour into the streets”. (Pr.)

On June 19, the first friday after the election, Khamenei led the Friday prayer. In his sermon he ordered the protesters to be dealt with as seriously and harshly as possible. He also said that since 2005 there had been a massive gap between Rafsanjani’s and Ahmadinejad’s views on economic, political, cultural, and social affairs, and that he feels(Pr.) that “his [views] are much closer to those of Ahmadinejad.” This came as a deadly blow to Rafsanjani, especially since he was not given a chance to defend himself against the accusations in mass media.

The Green Movement’s protests escalated rapidly. During his Friday prayer sermon on July 17, Rafsanjani criticised the police and security forces’ violent confrontations with the people. He said that the government should respond to the people’s demands, and that all those arrested should be freed. This was the last of 400 Friday prayer sermons he had led since July 1983, when he was appointed to that position by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Undermining Rafsanjani

As the next step Khamenei engineered the removal of Rafsanjani as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. In order to do so, he encouraged his allies to attack and discredit Rafsanjani in public, saying that he was not suitable for his position as the head of the Assembly. He also contacted each member of the assembly to encourage them not to cast their votes for Rafsanjani.

Rafsanjani suggested two solutions for Iran’s current problems: Everyone must agree that the government belongs to the people and should be governed by them, and that the problems are not solved by dictatorship; and, Iran has to reconstruct the erroneous foreign policy.

However, Rafsanjani, quite aware of Khamenei’s plan, decided not to run for the position. The day after the election, members of the Assembly visited Khamenei who thanked Rafsanjani, saying, “Given the record he has established so far, in acting so wisely and responsibly, this time again he responded as expected and did not nominate himself, and the Experts chose [Mahdavi Kani] rightly and justly“. (Pr.)

After that episode Rafsanjani had no prominent and powerful position. He was only a member of the Assembly of Experts and Chair of the Expediency Discernment Council. But, how threatening could Rafsanjani be without any power as a member of the powerless group of advisors to the Supreme Leader? It is very likely that Khamenei also recognised this fact, which explains why he re-appointed Rafsanjani to the Chair of the Council in 2011. Previously, after much argument and deliberation, the post of Chancellor of the Islamic Azad University (the third largest university in the world) was also taken away from him.

Presidential elections of 2013

As the presidential elections of June 2013 approached, Rafsanjani found a great opportunity to expand on his previous criticism of Ahmadinejad as having put Iran in a catastrophic and critical condition. He emphasised how mistaken the conservatives were in supporting Ahmadinejad’s crippling plans and agenda. Although he was vague about his participation in the coming elections as late as April, saying, “I do not categorically deny that I’m running for the presidency,” this simple statement raised an uproar.

Heydar Moslehi, the Minister of Intelligence and Security, responded very harshly, referring to him as one of the leaders of the Sedition – the term Khamenei uses to refer to the Green Movement – who is not under house arrest like the two other leaders, Mousavi and Karoubi, but whose activities the regime has to put under careful watch.

Rafsanjani also came under attack by members of the Supreme Leader’s family, including his brother, cleric Mohammad Khamenei who, in a speech given in May, called Rafsanjani a traitor, a hypocrite [a term reserved for the Mujahedin-e-Khalq], and a tool of the US. He claimed that the US had planned, through Rafsanjani and with his assistance, to make Mousavi president in the 2009 elections, and to start a “velvet revolution”.

He also mentioned the trip to Iran in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan national security adviser, Robert McFarland that gave rise to the Iran-Contra affair and called it another example(Pr.) of his betrayal of the Supreme Leader and Khomeini at that time. It is interesting that in 1986, after McFarland’s trip, Mohammad Khamenei, along with seven other conservative members of parliament, wrote a letter questioning the entire affair. However, in a speech in September of that year, Khomeini responded harshly and calling them vicious, hollow and selfish, and told them their “tone is even more satanic than Israel’s”. With these words, the eight signatories went into a political coma. 

In April, Rafsanjani suggested two solutions for Iran’s current problems. One, “[Everyone must] agree that the government belongs to the people and should be governed by them, and that the problems are not solved by dictatorship,” and two, “We have to reconstruct the erroneous foreign policy.” While criticising Iran’s foreign policy, which is entirely in Khamenei’s portfolio, he very clearly took a radical position toward a taboo topic, saying, “We have no intention of war with Israel.” This statement created such an uproar that Khamenei and the conservatives did not want him to be a candidate, let alone the president.

Part three to be published on Friday September 27.

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.