A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Backgrounder: The Rafsanjani Factor

There are enough all-Iran all-the-time blogs these days that I haven't felt obliged to comment on every rumor that circulates. For one thing, with the normal media suppressed and the foreign press either expelled or shut up in hotels, rumors become the primary coin of the realm, and many of them are just that: rumors.

A theme of sorts has seemed to emerge over the past week, however, that may deserve comment. This is the speculation about what Iran's former President, ‘Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, is up to. Now, Rafsanjani is a very powerful man. For one thing, he is probably the richest man in the country, a wealth initially based on pistachios but over the decades since the Revolution much expanded through other ventures. He is no friend of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who beat him to win the Presidency in 2005 when Rafsanjani tried to stage a comeback, and Ahmadinejad attacked him during the election campaign as a symbol of the corruption of the old guard.

But Rafsanjani's power extends to other things as well. During the Iran-Iraq war he served as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, deputized to that by Khomeini himself, and still has good ties with both the regular Armed Forces and the Revolutionary Guards Corps. He serves on both the Expediency Council (the oddly named*[see end of post] but powerful institution that can mediate between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians), and — this is what is helping spur a lot of speculation — the Council of Experts. The Council of Experts has only one, or arguably two, functions: it chooses the Rahbar, the Supreme Religious Leader. And, theoretically, it could remove him.

Rafsanjani is also someone who seems to prefer functioning behind the scenes. Not too surprisingly, he has been absent from the public stage during the current troubles, though several members of his powerful Hashemi family have been arrested and later released, including his daughter Faeza Hashemi. It's no secret he doesn't like Ahmadinejad: their bad blood is public. His attitude towards the Leader is more circumspect, but it's widely believed he's very unhappy with the election results.

As a result there has been a persistent rumor that has cropped up several times over the past week, and it generally goes like this: Rafsanjani has been meeting in Qom with senior clerics and/or the Council of Experts (which is composed of senior clerics) and there may be sentiment emerging that could lead to the Experts deposing Khamene'i. Now again, these are rumors: this sort of thing doesn't get announced publicly. One version of the rumors turned up in an Al-‘Arabiya story a few days ago; another version, emphasizing that Rafsanjani is likely to bide his time and only move when ready, is summarized here. I had posted earlier about this Al Jazeera analysis early on interpreting the whole crisis as a Khamene'i/Rafsanjani rivalry. This may not be the only paradigm for understanding what is happening, but I think it's a potentially credible one.

As a little background, when the Constitution was originally written, it was assumed that only occasionally would there be consensus on a single religious leader to practice velayat-e faqih, Khomeini's doctrine of rule of the religious leader, and that more normally, a committee of senior clerics would carry out the function. Khomeini's first chosen successor, Ayatollah Montazeri, had a falling out with Khomeini, and many assumed that when the Imam died there would be a collective religious leaderhship, but the constitution was actually changed to call for a single religious leader at all times. Khamene'i, a fairly junior cleric and certainly not a Grand Ayatollah, got the post, and some eyebrows were raised because it was argued his scholarship had never risen to the level of a marja‘, a "source of emulation" in Shi‘ism. Neither Khamene'i nor Rafsanjani rank at the top of the religious hierarchy, though they dominate the Revolutionary hierarchy.

Now if any of this is true — and let me emphasize that's a very big if — it would amount to a constitutional coup, though arguably one against the constitutional coup the opposition claims has been mounted by Ahmadinejad. I'd be more inclined, I think, to buy the version that says Rafsanjani will bide his time but will continue to work against the President. But if there were to be a renewal of violence — if the present lull is just a calm before another storm — or if, as some are threatening, the government moves to arrest Mousavi, then I think some intervention might be likelier. What is clear is that Ahmadinejad and Khamene'i will have a fight on their hands if they try to marginalize Rafsanjani, who has the clout to fight back.

[*The Expediency Council is really more oddly translated than oddly named. Something like "Council for Determining the Interests of the State" would be a better translation, but "Expediency Discernment Council" got established early on. And that was before Google translator.]

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