Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, The Death of the Ayatollah-Maker

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By S. Hesam Houryaband,

The death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in the beginning days of January 2017 marks a political turning point in Iran, the ramifications of which are yet to be felt nationally and internationally.  But one thing is clear: Rafsanjani’s death provides another massive political opportunity for Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to finally consolidate total political power in the country.

Ironically, although it was Rafsanjani’s political manoeuvring and masterminding efforts which paved the way for Khamenei to become Supreme Leader after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founding father of the Islamic Republic, in 1989, yet he eventually became more of a nuisance and a thorn in Khamenie’s side during the recent years.  In the early years of the revolution, Rafsanjani rose to prominence in the political and religious circles as the Head of the Parliament, and eventually president, serving for two terms until 1997.

In the early 1980s, Rafsanjani was crucial in providing political clout for Khamenei, and the two seemed to work in tandem to keep other political parties and forces in check only to ensure their hold on power.  In fact, Rafsanjani had a more prominent standing in Iranian politics, not only due to his revolutionary credentials and activism, but also owing to his wealth and economic connections amongst the bazaaris (businessmen and merchants), as well as the religious cadre, and the rank and file of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), the armed forces, and the newly formed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

However, it was always clear to Rafsanjani and other Iranian political and religious elite that he would never be able to fill the role of the Supreme Leader, mainly due to his lack of religious ranking.  Rafsanjani had only achieved the title of Hojatoleslam in the Shia Islamic theology seminaries, and had not pursued his studies further to become Ayatollah.  Due to this handicap, he needed to push for the position of the Supreme Leader to be filled by a political ally to secure his own political career.  In his role as the Head of Parliament, he would realign his policies with Khamenei, who was president at the time, to the detriment of the moderate factions such as that of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the then Prime Minister.  When Khomeini died in 1989, the Assembly of Experts, comprised of religious theologians tasked with choosing the next Supreme Leader, deliberated for a long time in choosing the next leader and reached an impasse.  But because of Rafsanjani’s closeness with Khomeini, and his influence amongst the Assembly members, he succeeded in pushing for the nomination and finally acceptance of Khamenei.

Theoretically, the position of the Supreme Leader has final say and control on all matters, yet because of Khamenei’s novicehood, Rafsanjani was the one who steered the real power, thanks to his already established powerbase and network.  In fact, in the early 1980s, Rafsanjani was successful in not only gaining respect of the conservatives, but at the same time keeping cordial relations with the moderates, the likes of Mir Hossein Mousavi (the current leader of the reform movement), and his entourage such as Mohammad Khatami, who subsequently became president after Rafsanjani vacated the post.

Rafsanjani with newly elected Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, 1989.

As Khamenei gained power, Rafsanjani became more of a liability for him.  Khamenei was not able to completely win over all of the religious conservative factions to his side, and had trouble swaying the moderates to accept his legitimacy and hold on power during Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005.  The business elite did not trust him, and the security apparatus was divided.  In order to step out of the shadow of Rafsanjani and curtail his influence and power, Khamenei pushed for the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president in 2005, and tasked Ahmadinejad to go after Rafsanjani’s powerbase and in curbing much of Rafsanjani’s influence in social, political, and economic circles.  However, Rafsanjani pushed back and exerted pressure on both Ahmadinejad, and indirectly, Khamenei.  For example, when Ahmadinejad put forth economic reform policies, Rafsanjani was successful in getting the bazaaris to go on strike for days, crippling the economy.  In another instance, when Ahmadinejad resorted to replacing the head of the private Azad University system, which was coincidentally founded by Rafsanjani and headed by Abdollah Jassbi, a protégé of Rafsanjani, a fortnight after Ahmadinejad declared his decision, Rafsanjani sent him a private message threatening to shut down the university and stage mass student demonstrations if Ahmadinejad went ahead with removing Jassbi.  Shortly after, the president backed down.

Rafsanjani was also able to gain the trust of the moderates after the 2009 contentious presidential elections which led to the arrest of the moderate forerunners, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, as well as nationwide demonstrations, mass arrests and suppression.  Rafsanjani played the mediator between the opposing forces, the government, and the Supreme Leader, going as far as demanding the release of Mousavi and Karroubi, who are still under house arrest.

Rafsanjani’s role in international affairs was also noteworthy throughout his career, and at times in sharp contrast to the policies and views of Khamenei.  In the 1980s-90s, he was crucial in driving Iran’s case internationally when invaded by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.  He was also the key player in striking arms deals with the Israelis and the Americans, despite lack of relations with either country.  Rafsanjani’s personal connections with the Saudi royal family, including the late King Fahd and Prince Abdullah, was helpful in several instances in calming tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, Rafsanjani’s ties were so close with the Saudis that the royal family would send him and his entire family personal invitations to visit the Kingdom several times in the past 3 decades, and beseech him to intervene and mediate on their behalf with the Iranian government.

For Rafsanjani, relations with the United States and the Europeans, as well as Iran’s nuclear dossier, were also important matters where he exerted influence directly and indirectly.  He had been on record a few times speaking about the taboo subject of opening relations with the Americans, stating that he was not opposed to the idea and that it would be beneficial for Iran, going directly against Khamenei’s views and opinions on the topic.  In fact, it was with Rafsanjani’s push, through Hassan Rouhani, the then Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (and current president of Iran), and Mohammad Khatami the president at the time, that the negotiations with the EU+3 (China, Russia, the US) were started in the early 2000’s in order to resolve the deadlock over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Indeed, at the time, the MOIS suspected the passing of sensitive information and negotiation key points from the Iranian diplomatic team to the Europeans, on the behest of Rafsanjani and Rouhani, which resulted in several high-level arrests.

Former President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (left) talks to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

All in all, Rafsanjani’s presence in Iranian political scene, and lack thereof, will prove to be another great political opportunity for Khamenei.  Rafsanjani’s death means that Khamenei will now be able to fully consolidate his power and influence.

With the moderate forces weakened, their leaders jailed and under house arrest, and the lack of popular will among their followers to challenge Khamenei’s rule, he will be able to subdue calls for more political reform and democracy.  The conservative faction will be drawn more towards Khamenei and his circle of power in order to fill the void left by Rafsanjani, to be able to benefit from the political and economic spills and gain a bigger piece of the pie.  The military and security apparatus, as well as remaining political organizations will be more aligned with the Supreme Leader’s policies, and those who do not adhere will be sidelined, purged, or silenced.

Iranian foreign relations will also be negatively affected by the internal changes and shifts, bringing more of a hardliner approach and foreign policy, specifically vis-à-vis the West and the United States, as well as regionally towards rivals such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the other Persian Gulf sheikhdoms.

Khamenei will want to gain full control rapidly, regardless of how much time he has left as the Supreme Leader, and it will be crucial to see how he will rule and hold control of power moving forward, and deal with the buildup of internal dissent and international pressures in the coming years.