Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been authorized to run for the Assembly of Experts, a body charged with choosing the next leader. Bridging reformists and conservatives, the former president has emerged as a central figure in the new ‘moderate’ camp
As Iran prepares for elections on 26 February for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that chooses Iran’s supreme leader, the name of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani crops up frequently in media and political discussions. Iran’s former president, whose political presence faded during the presidencies of Mohammad Khatami and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is once again on the rise.
At 81, Rafsanjani is embroiled again in a new political battle. Over the past few years he has gained popularity among ‘moderates’, a term that has become popular since Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013 and which includes some figures previously seen as reformists and others as ‘principle-ists’. He is already one of the Assembly’s 78 members. This week he was cleared to run again.
Saeed Abutaleb, a former principle-ist parliamentary deputy, predicts Rafsanjani is going to have a big win in the Assembly of Experts. “I think not only that Rafsanjani and his allies will be successful in the election, but it’s even possible that Rafsanjani becomes the chairman of the assembly,” he told Tehran Bureau.
The next chairman will have a “very significant” role, said Abutaleb, given the assembly may in its next eight-year term choose a successor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who is 76 and in 2014 underwent prostate surgery.
And things do not end there for Rafsanjani. His supporters have also geared up for the parliamentary elections, for which significant numbers of moderates leaning toward Rafsanjani have stepped forward.
The Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elections, has failed to qualifymost of these candidates. But despite all the hurdles, the new ‘moderate’ faction still has the upper hand in the parliamentary elections, said Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University, given they have enough candidates qualified to win more seats than the nearly 30 they hold out of 288, which is about 10%.
The Guardian Council is reviewing the mass disqualifications and may reverse itself in some cases.
“Rafsanjani and the moderates benefitted a lot from all the developments since the establishment of the new government [in 2013], especially the nuclear deal and consequently the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” he told Tehran Bureau. “So their chances are quite high for the election.”
Any successes would leave them well short of a majority, said Abutaleb: “The next parliament is not going to be dominated by moderates and Rafsanjani’s allies, but I believe their presence would be more significant than the current parliament.”
These days Rafsanjani is far more popular with the public than during the presidencies of Khatami and Ahmadinejad, when he was under constant attack by the government. The roots of this unpopularity lay in his time as president from 1989 to 1997.
Prior to becoming president, Rafsanjani also played a key role in Khamenei’s ascent to supreme leader. In 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and its leader, died without designating a replacement, Rafsanjani, then a powerful parliamentary speaker, argued that Khomeini had been in favor of Khamenei’s candidacy. Khamenei was elected as the new supreme leader by the Assembly of Experts in June 1989 and two months later, Rafsanjani took over as the next president.
Rafsanjani’s focus was on reviving the country’s war-torn economy through economic liberalisation. Arguably, he was successful as average annual GDP growth was 5.3% during his presidency, far higher than the 1.6% average growth under his predecessor Ali Khamenei (1981-1989).
But the Rafsanjani era brought little in the way of political reform or openness. His presidency was a time when dissidents were assassinated in the so-called “chain murders” and when the universities were subjected to tight control.
As Rafsanjani’s first term ended in 1993, discontent with his performance, as well as a challenge from three other candidates, saw the 94% of votes he gained in the 1989 election against just one challenger drop to 63%.
During the mid-90s, as talk of reform and change emerged and gained momentum, Rafsanjani appeared cautious. When Khatami swept to office in 1997, the Rafsanjani presidency was seen by reformists as “patriarchal” and financially corrupt. The exposure of the state’s role in the “chain murders” by journalist Akbar Ganji further tainted Rafsanjani among reformists.
When he stood in Tehran in the 2000 parliamentary election, Rafsanjani barely made it and later resigned. The reformists held a majority in the parliament, while Rafsanjani’s party, Kargozaran, formed in 1996 largely on a platform of economic development, won around 40 seats.
When Rafsanjani ran in the 2005 presidential election, he lost a run-off ballot to the then mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who attacked him, if not by name, as corrupt. Charges of corruption against him and his family ranged from bribery to accumulating illicit wealth through the oil trade, and these continued when Ahmadinejad was president. A leading figure since the 1979 Revolution, Rafsanjani went into political isolation.
But 2009 marked a turning point in Rafsanjani’s long career. As protests over the presidential election results erupted, Rafsanjani earned the protesters’ attention by criticising Ahmadinejad’s government. On 17 July, 2009, during his Friday sermon in Tehran, Rafsanjani attacked the authorities for mishandling the protests and called for the release of jailed protesters.
That marked his last appearance as Friday prayer speaker, and attacks intensified against Rafsanjani and his family, including daughter Faezeh and son Mohsen. Another son, Mehdi, was briefly detained in 2012 accused of financial crimes and inciting the 2009 post-election unrest, and is now serving ten years in prison.
Over the years following the 2009 unrest, Rafsanjani’s political presence was less visible. In March 2011 he stepped down as the chair of the Assembly of Experts. In 2013, he was disqualified from running in the presidential election ostensibly on grounds of age.
But since Rouhani took office in August 2013, Rafsanjani has once again publicly engaged in politics while making clear he has revised many of his views. “Looking at Rafsanjani’s political stands and comments over the past few years, we see that his opinions have changed and become more moderate,” said Abutaleb. “Now he is supported not only by reformist intellectuals, but also some of the moderate principle-ists.”
Where Rafsanjani once wanted dissident students expelled from universities, he now calls for more openness in academia. While he once rejected talk of “reconciliation with the USA”, by 2012 he expressed support for negotiations with Washington over Iran’s nuclear programme, and he now insists Iran cannot remain isolated from the US and the rest of the world.
And while the morality police was widely set up during Rafsanjani’s presidency, when he supported enforcing Islamic dress codes and dealing with what he called “moral corruption”, if needs be by using “some violence”, by 2000 Rafsanjani said the authorities should not interfere unduly in the way people dressed.
But Rafsanjani is not the only politician who has changed. The reformists have too, said Zibakalam. “Many of his radical opponents among the reformists and traditional leftists have realised that their strategy of destroying Rafsanjani’s reputation was a big mistake,” he explained.
“So since the Ahmadinejad era, the reformists have got closer to him. Now an unwritten coalition has formed between the reformists and Rafsanjani. And even a wide range of moderate reformists have accepted his leadership.”
Original article by Tehran Bureau, published by The Guardian
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