Rafsanjani Makes His Move

Iran's most independent politician finally casts his lot with the hard-liners. Is this the end for the green movement, or just the beginning?


Iran’s most watched man has finally made his move. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and the country’s most skilled political operator, had been sending mixed signals since the contentious June election, one day appearing sympathetic with the opposition and the next declaring his loyalty to the regime. Throughout this long political dance, both Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the opposition "green movement" appreciated that securing the allegiance of Rafsanjani, a key player in Iranian politics since the Islamic Revolution, would represent a significant victory.

Now, Rafsanjani appears to have decided to place his bets with Khamenei. And it turns out that Rafsanjani’s cultivated reputation for independence might be exactly what the supreme leader needs right now.

Since the June 12 presidential election, the only constant during Rafsanjani’s long period of fence-sitting was his display of contempt for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cadre of hard-liners. The rift between the two men goes back many years. Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race, a contest Rafsanjani implied was rigged by the hard-liners. The tension only intensified during the 2009 presidential election, when Ahmadinejad, in a nationally televised debate, accused his rival Mir Hossein Mousavi of receiving support from corrupt officials, such as Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani then sent an unprecedented letter to Khamenei, complaining about Ahmadinejad’s "lies." He called on Khamenei to extinguish the "fire" sparked by Ahmadinejad.

Recently, Rafsanjani had even refused to be seen in public with Ahmadinejad, and he was conspicuously absent from the president’s inauguration ceremony.

The green movement had hoped that Rafsanjani’s well-known recent rivalry with Khamenei, as well as his distaste for Ahmadinejad, would secure his influential support. Their hopes were raised particularly on July 17, when Rafsanjani delivered a Friday prayer sermon in Tehran. The Friday sermons are used to discuss burning political issues, and Rafsanjani took the occasion to criticize the regime’s heavy-handed crackdown against the opposition. He called for releasing political prisoners, freeing the media, and preserving the rule of law. "Don’t let our enemies laugh at us by putting people in prison," Rafsanjani told worshippers. "We must search for unity to find a way out of our quandary."

Rafsanjani also said that Iran should be ruled as a "republic," a deliberate criticism of the dictatorship evolving since the June demonstrations. After this speech, the regime punished Rafsanjani by banning him as a Friday prayer leader, ending his long-held influence in the post.

But over the winter, the field began to shift in the opposite direction. Rafsanjani might have been concerned about the risk of political irrelevancy if he continued to stay distant from the regime. And with the opposition still weak, joining it would have severely curtailed his ability to stay in the political mix. The first sign of rapprochement between Rafsanjani and Khamenei came on Feb. 25, when the supreme leader paid a visit to the Assembly of Experts, an influential political body chaired by Rafsanjani. Khamenei, in a clear reference to Rafsanjani, took the opportunity to declare that Iranian leaders needed to decide if they were with the state or the "enemy" — that is, with the opposition. Photos published in state-run newspapers showed the two men sitting nearly cheek to cheek.

Then, at a March 4 event to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, which was attended by Khamenei, high-ranking Iranian officials, and numerous foreign diplomats, Rafsanjani did the unthinkable: He appeared with Ahmadinejad.

The green movement is bitterly disappointed, but Khamenei is likely boosted, and with good reason: The very qualities that kept Rafsanjani independent so long are exactly what make him a suitable ally for Khamenei. Rafsanjani has much in common with mainstream conservatives who have long supported Khamenei, but he will never align himself with the new generation of influential hard-liners, led by Ahmadinejad and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). In the June election’s aftermath, other moderate conservatives, such as parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, briefly seemed to part ways with the supreme leader on certain issues as well. With Khamenei unable to count on his traditional loyalists, Rafsanjani’s support comes at a crucial time.

Khamenei, appointed supreme leader in 1989, has proved in the past to be an astute politician who rules by consensus. But now his power has been undermined by the worst political crisis in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. His grip has weakened over institutions such as the IRGC, the judiciary, the parliament, the Guardian Council, and even the presidency.

In exchange for Rafsanjani’s loyalty, the supreme leader appears to have given him power over a new bill that will establish a National Elections Commission to reform the electoral process. Not only is this issue at the heart of Iran’s political crisis, but the commission would also determine the eligibility of individuals to stand as candidates in elections. And the Expediency Council, which monitors legislation and is responsible for any conflicts that might result over Iranian laws, will also decide the members who serve on the National Elections Commission.

This significant change in the elections process will greatly reduce the power of the Guardian Council, a body of six hard-line clerics and six jurists appointed by Khamenei. Historically, this Guardian Council has banned many reformist candidates from running in elections, thus ensuring conservative control even in the face of growing public discontent. The guardians were also charged with hearing complaints about election fraud and complaints from banned candidates contesting their exclusion. Now, the National Elections Commission will hold some of these responsibilities.

By bringing Rafsanjani back into the fold, Khamenei appears to be trying to reduce the power of the hard-liners, including some of those who sit on the Guardian Council. It is true that reforming Iran’s electoral process is one step toward a less totalitarian regime. However, it is unlikely to pacify the millions of Iranians who consider themselves part of the opposition. If Khamenei had made this decision soon after the June election, its effects would have, perhaps, been different. But now, many in the opposition have far greater demands, including Ahmadinejad’s resignation.

Therefore, at least for now, the green movement is taking Rafsanjani’s return to the fold as a setback. With his independent voice now subsumed into the hard-line camp, there is no doubt this development will lead him to curtail his recent criticism of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei. It is also likely that, even with the new National Elections Commission, it could be years before Rafsanjani is able to bring free and fair elections to Iran. As Khamenei reaps the benefits of his renewed support, Rafsanjani may find his new commission a meager consolation prize.

Geneive Abdo is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. Twitter: @AbdoGeneive