Rafsanjani and Khamenei: The Rouhani element

Rouhani’s victory was a decisive win for Rafsanjani in his power struggle with the Supreme Leader, but what’s next?

Rouhani's victory brings Iranians great hope for a rapprochement with the US [AP]

This article is the final of a three part series. As President Hassan Rouhani’s makes his debut at the United Nations General Assembly, 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, and part two here.

The problem with dictators is that since they are left alone by themselves and live in isolation, they do not see the reality, or if they are forced to see it, they interpret it the way they want to.

A dictator like Khamenei has a distorted view of the balance of power in the world and in the region. He, very self-righteously, interprets the entire events in the world from the standpoint of the Islamic Republic as he sees it. For example, he called the Arab Spring the “Islamic Awakening of Muslims against America and Israel”, whereas in reality, using their vast financial resources, GCC nations have used the Arab Spring as a means to force a wedge between Shiites and Sunnis across the region.

Rafsanjani has recognised the threat to Iran. In April, on his website he quoted Khomeini’s statement, “The security and survival of the regime is more important than the security and survival of one person, even if that person is the Twelfth Imam [of the Shiites].” Whom was he referring to? Was it Ahmadinejad, who was finally going to leave office? Could it be Khamenei? Rafsanjani was right to target the person that is the source of the problem. However, Rafsanjani also said that if there is ever a quarrel between him[Pr.] and the Supreme Leader, almost everybody would suffer:

It is not clear if [Rafsanjani] also recognises that changes, such as direct negotiation with the US,
even if quite useful, will be of no long-term use and will not solve the present crisis without democratisation of the system.

“In deciding to enter the presidential race, I should consult the Supreme Leader. I will never enter the race without his consent, since if he does not agree, it would result in just the opposite of what we all desire. We do not want to fight [each other]. If we create a situation that leads to fights and quarrels between me and the Supreme Leader, we will all suffer.”

There was, however, a double meaning in his words. First, Rafsanjani was saying: I would like to run as a candidate, but since Khamenei is against it, I cannot. Second: If I get into a conflict with Khamenei, much damage would be done, including to Khamenei himself as well as the regime.”

The main challenge for Iran is to make a peaceful transition from the present religious dictatorship to a secular democracy based on respect for human rights. Removing Khamenei from office, abolishing the institution of Velayat-e Faqih, and removing from power his supporting cast are the necessary first steps towards this goal.

Rafsanjani, who was instrumental in creating the obstacles, seems to believe that it is time for their removal.

Rafsanjani has rightly come to realise that unless some substantial changes are made in the system, and to the policies of government and the regime, the imposed economic sanctions will destroy Iranian society and the nation from within, and then the door will be open for foreign powers to take a wrecking ball to Iran, just as it was done to Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

But it is not clear if he also recognises that changes, such as direct negotiation with the US, even if quite useful, will be of no long-term use and will not solve the present crisis without democratisation of the system.

No other people in the region have as positive a view of the US as the people of Iran. If free elections are held in Iran, the pro-democracy majority would undoubtedly win handily. The Iranian society has gone through a real transformation in all aspects, and has grown enough that the garment of Velayat-e Faqih is too small for its body, and does not fit but by force.

In May, former President Mohammad Khatami announced his strong support for Rafsanjani’s[Pr.] candidacy, saying, “His entering the race will surely moderate the international community’s approach towards Iran, and this will ameliorate the problem … With God’s help, if His Eminence Rafsanjani would become a candidate, we would pass this difficult stage.”

In order to prevent Rafsanjani’s candidacy, Khamenei and the conservatives used whatever means they could, including arresting his son, Mehdi Hashemi, just two days prior to the deadline for registering with the Interior Ministry as a candidate for the presidency. They also removed his new book, “The Book of Outspokenness” (Serahatnameh) from Tehran’s book fair, although it had obtained a permit and was published with the approval of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Rafsanjani declares as candidate

But despite the intimidation, Rafsanjani announced his candidacy at the last minute. The Reformist Advisory Board, which Khatami heads, met immediately and announced its full support for Rafsanjani. All the reformist groups pledged their support for Rafsanjani as well. But, once again, Khamenei used all the means in his power to encourage his allies in the Guardian Council to disqualify Rafsanjani. Khamenei succeeded, and the Guardian Council disqualified Rafsanjani. The official reason given was that Rafsanjani is too old.

Rafsanjani did not react at all when he was disqualified by the Guardian Council. He only said that his candidacy was originally due to the critical conditions and the various threats that Iran was facing. However, his disqualification by the Guardian Council not only placed him in a better light with Iranians, but also prompted a national wave of support in his favour. In short, with the least effort and by his candidacy alone, Rafsanjani managed to restore his ruined reputation. After the vetting, Hassan Rouhani, Rafsanjani’s disciple, emerged as the main moderate candidate.

What did this mean for the nation and Rafsanjani?

Among the eight candidates approved to run for the presidency, Rouhani had the closest relationship with Rafsanjani who supported him openly and claimed him as his top choice.

With Rafsanjani’s disqualification by the Guardian Council, Khatami and other reformists were obliged to follow and support Rouhani.

Drastic changes in the domestic as well as foreign policy are the only solution to the economic crisis as well.

Rouhani won the election with more than 18 million votes. Undoubtedly, his victory was a boon to Rafsanjani’s credentials. In response and in appreciation, Rouhani thanked him, as well as Khatami, in his victory speech. Rafsanjani also hailed the election as “one of the most democratic in the world”.

With Rouhani’s election, the time for change has arrived. The destructive policies of Khamenei , Ahmadinejad, and Saeed Jalili, the chief nuclear negotiator, during the past eight years needed to be remedied. If, once again, Khamenei tries to keep the president from making major changes, the crisis will deepen. Drastic changes in the domestic as well as foreign policy are the only solution to the economic crisis as well.

While Rafsanjani appeared happy and smiling during Rouhani’s confirmation and inauguration ceremonies, Khatami and other reformists were absent from both. This indicated that Khatami and other reformists are personae non grata. In fact, they have been asked by Khamenei to apologise for condemning the presidential election of 2009 as fraudulent.

Although several representatives launched sharp attacks on Rafsanjani and his children during the debates in the Majles for a vote of confidence for Rouhani’s cabinet, on the whole, it went well for him. Many of his supporters found their way into government. One of the Majlis’ vulgar clerics said that if Bijan Zanganeh was approved as Minister of Oil, Rafsanjani’s thieving, and wheeling and dealing son, Mehdi, would have a field day. For all that, Zanganeh was voted in as the Minister of Oil.

In his latest maneuver Rafsanjani tried to use Tehran’s city council elections, which has vast financial resources and is prestigious enough that Tehran’s mayor can even be elected president, as it happened with Ahmadinejad, as another power base. Half of Tehran’s thirty-one, recently-elected council members are reformists. Rafsanjani asked for and received the support of Khatami and the reformists for his son Mohsen to be Tehran’s next mayor. But on September 8, when the members voted for a new mayor, Mohsen lost to Tehran’s current mayor, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who was also a presidential candidate. This may hurt the reformists.

A new era

After Rouhani was elected, he appointed a new minister of science, research and technology and the board of trustees of the Islamic Azad University, one of the largest universities in the world and a power base for Rafsanjani in the past, changed. On September 18, Rafsanjani succeeded in removing Farhad Daneshjoo, the hardline chancellor of the university, and replacing him with Hamid Mirzadeh, his first vice-president in his second administration (1993-1997).

I believe now that the elections are over, Rafsanjani will try to use his new image to have a decisive impact on the entire political system of Iran. He will exert some of his influence through speeches and interviews.

He said in an interview that towards the end of Ayatollah Khomeini’s life, he wrote, “Ultimately, the policy that we are now adopting, to neither speak with the US nor have relations with it, is unsustainable. The US is the world’s superpower. And what difference is there between Europe and the US, China and the US, or Russia and the US? If we can negotiate with them, why can’t we negotiate with the US? Negotiating does not mean that we surrender to them. Negotiations means that if they accept our positions or we accept theirs, it’s finished … I wanted to establish relations with Egypt, but we were unable to [meaning prevented from]. I wanted to open negotiations with the  Americans based on the conditions that I had set forth, but we were unable to.”

In the same interview Rafsanjani made a statement regarding the Lebanese Hezbollah that angered the hardliners. He said, “Regarding [our support] for Hezbollah, the Shiite make up the majority of Lebanon, and have always been repressed. [Iran’s support] has always been defensible, on the condition that we do not use them as our proxy to create problems for others, and they [Hezbollah] do their own thing. If our nation does not wish to have an adventurous foreign policy, such [support] is tolerable.”

Out of their [people’s] anxiety over the country’s future, due to the danger of war, the harsh conditions regarding the economy and a police atmosphere, came the realisation that changes had to be made in the country …. The system, too, had to cooperate well with this public opinion and the Leader, for his part, confirmed that public opinion was the people’s rights.”

A Majles deputy declared Rafsanjani’s statement[Pr.] against national security and demanded the foreign ministry to respond to it. The deputy was angry that Rafsanjani had questioned the wisdom of using Hezbollah against others.

In August,  Rafsanjani said, “Out of their [people’s] anxiety over the country’s future, due to the danger of war, the harsh conditions regarding the economy and a police atmosphere, came the realisation that changes had to be made in the country …. The system, too, had to cooperate well with this public opinion and the Leader, for his part, confirmed that public opinion was the people’s rights.”

Treading on dangerous ground

The next dangerous game that Rafsanjani has begun playing against Khamenei is his position regarding Syria. In the last week of August, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, who is close to the reformists, wrote in her Facebook page that Rafsanjani has spoken against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. At first, the public relations office of the Expediency Discernment Council denied the report. But, then, in a speech on September 1,  Rafsanjani said:

“We are under economic sanctions and cannot use our resources [that are outside the country]. We have to pay a high price to purchase what we need, and have difficulty receiving the proceeds from our exports, but we are now facing a greater threat. One hundred thousand Syrians have been killed, there are 8 million [internal and external Syrian] refugees, the [Syria’s] prisons are full with no space left; even sports arenas have been used as prisons, and the people are living in very terrible conditions. Chemical weapons have been used against the Syrians by their own government, and they are now awaiting the US’ bombs.”

This speech angered the conservatives, and they reacted quickly. Rafsanjani’s office denied the report once again. Then, a tape recording of his speech was publicised. On September 4, during a session of the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani said that the voice on the tape was fake and not his. But, on the same day, Ali Motahhari, a Majles deputy who supports Rafsanjani, said that he has listened to the tape and it is indeed Rafsanjani’s voice. “We should allow Rafsanjani to express his opinion freely. If the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against its own citizens, we must condemn it, but [make it clear that] it does not mean that we support US military attacks on Syria,” Motahhari said. Under enormous pressure, on September 7, Rafsanjani vaguely denied what he had said about the use of chemical weapons in Syria; he essentially lied.

The domestic, as well as foreign policies must be changed to help the economic crisis. Rafsanjani will be of great help to the president, the reformists, the Marjas, and the dissatisfied fundamentalists all would try to make changes. Their first option would be to convince Khamenei that the changes would not harm him or the Islamic Republic. But, if Khamenei resists, they have no other choice but to challenge him. Rafsanjani’s recent positions and pronouncements indicate that he and his supporters may choose the option of confrontation.

For this, Rafsanjani needs the energy of a youthful athlete. Does he have that energy at the age of 79? And if he does, does he have the will? What worries the pro-democracy people is that Rafsanjani will cave in to the Supreme Leader, instead of standing up to him. If Rafsanjani does that, then, the reformists are the ones who will pay the price. Of course, Rafsanjani, the politician, may have his eyes on the position of the Supreme Leader, but that will not materialise unless Khamenei dies, or he is dismissed by the Assembly of Experts, which is unlikely to happen.

Indeed, Rafsanjani and Rouhani will try to convince Khamenei to change his policy, rather than pursuing a confrontational policy that may cause the regime to weaken or even collapse.

But how much can Khamenei, as an autocratic leader, open his eyes to see the bitter facts that contradict his theories, and how much will he adjust? Will he give Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a free hand in negotiating with the US government and coming to an agreement? Although Rouhani was elected president with the help of the reformists, the Majles, which is packed with Khamenei’s cronies, did not allow them to be appointed to any major portfolio in Rouhani’s administration.

Despite this, Rafsanjani is continuing his pursuit of power and, in the current deep crisis in the region, is attempting to present himself as the saviour of Iran and the region. His message to the West is that Iran’s ruling group is not unified, and that he is pursuing a path different from Khamenei’s. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to believe that Rafsanjani wants to democratise Iran’s political system, and not simply wish to expand his power base.

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.