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  • 11 January 2017
  • Posted By Adam Weinstein
  • Events in Iran

What US policymakers can learn about Iran from the life and death of Rafsanjani


TThis article first appeared on the London School of Economics Middle East Centre Blog.

On the eve of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death, he was no longer a hardliner. But he wasn’t a reformist either. Many Western newspapers described him as ‘Iran’s ex-president’ in their elegies of him but his legacy dwarfs that characterisation. US policymakers should study both his life and the reaction to his death to understand the complexities of the Iranian nezam or system. At varying times and depending who you ask, Rafsanjani was a kingmaker, villain and tragic hero within that system. In his 2007 book, Iran: A People Interrupted, Professor Hamid Dabashi, a proponent of the revolution but critic of the resulting system described Rafsanjani as matching ‘Henry Kissinger’s politically criminal mind and Thatcher’s insidious statesmanship.’

When Ayatollah Khomeini died in the summer of 1989, it was Rafsanjani who advocated for the influential yet religiously unqualified (at the time) Khamenei to take on the role of Supreme Leader. In a speech before the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani recalled a time when he had lamented to Khomeini that nobody could fill his shoes when he died. According to Rafsanjani the aged Khomeini replied ‘of course we have Mr. Khamenei.’ A recording of the speech shows a dismayed Khamenei ascend to the podium amidst a cacophony of jeers and cheers and somberly respond ‘I’m against this anyway.’ Whatever his true desires, he was appointed to the position by his fellow clerics. Rafsanjani would forever be seated to Khamenei’s left in most public events symbolising his position as the second most powerful man in Iran.

Yet, this position did not secure him all the privileges one would expect. In 2009 a schism formed between the Supreme Leader and Rafsanjani over the fallout of the elections in which Mir-Hossein Moussavi lost to Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani’s wife called on Iranians to protest in the streets if they felt the election was dishonest and they did. Rafsanjani himself delivered a Friday sermon stating the reformist demands for freedom of the press and political assembly. Later, in 2011, his daughter Faezeh Rafsanjani was arrested for protesting and spent time in prison. His son was also arrested. Even Rafsanjani’s own children were not immune from censorship through arrest. When President Ahmadinejad’s term ended in 2013, Rafsanjani was vetted ­– likely by Khamenei himself – from running for the office due to his post-2009 alignment with Green Movement figures and other reformists. Nevertheless, he revisited his role as kingmaker and was pivotal in Rouhani’s political success.

Rafsanjani inherited a war-ravaged Iran as President in 1989. He became known by some as the Sardar-e Sazandegi or Leader of Reconstruction. He needed to revitalise the economy and believed in the free market. Some have even criticised him as serving the bazaari or powerful merchant class. The economic woes of Iran during the Ahmadinejad era were arguably inherited from some of Rafsanjani’s liberal economic policies. He has also been widely accused of corruption and thievery. But outside of the domestic arena, Rafsanjani often appeared more pragmatic than other leaders of the revolutionary generation. He wanted to improve ties with the West and restore Iran’s place in the world. His commitment to the system was unimpeachable and he enjoyed the enviable ability to push back on the policies of hardliners ­– including the Supreme Leader – without facing serious consequences.

The biggest lesson that can be learned from Rafsanjani’s life is that even at the highest levels the Iranian system is not a monolith. The mullahs – a term for clerics that often carries a pejorative tone – may be united in their belief in the Islamic Republic but not in their vision for it. Secondly, Iran’s political landscape is defined by charismatic leaders rather than coherent political parties. For example, the Coalition of Hope – which scored major victories over hardliners in last year’s Majles elections – included the ostensibly hardline former head of the Ministry of Intelligence Mohammad Reyshahri. Contrary to the narratives of many US policy analysts, the office of the presidency in Iran is not merely one of a figurehead nor is the Supreme Leader entirely unbending. Figures outside of these two circles of power can and do wield immense influence over Iran’s foreign policy and domestic affairs. By definition, anyone who becomes president in Iran passed the scrutiny of the Supreme Leader and these include figures as divergent from one another as Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. Rather than an impotent figurehead beholden to the Supreme Leader, the presidency in Iran is a litmus test through which the Supreme Leader can try out new policies but abdicate full responsibility if such policies lose public support.  For example, it was Khatami rather than the system itself who faced the most scrutiny for failing to achieve his campaign promises.

This dynamic is especially true for foreign policy. The anti-West era of Ahmadinejad was as much a reaction to the snubbing of both Rafsanjani and Khatami by the Clinton administration as it was a reaction to domestic hardliner demands. In 1995 then President Rafsanjani granted two oil concessions to the US oil company Conoco. Israel feared such a deal would provide Tehran with money to use for terrorism. Under this pressure and in an attempt to lead the way in the fight against state-sponsored terrorism the Clinton administration signed two executive orders making oil investment in Iran illegal for US entities.

In 1999, the Clinton administration again had an opportunity of achieving détente with the relatively new President Khatami. However, President Clinton insisted the Islamic Republic claim responsibility for the bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia as seen in this declassified letter. This move forced Khatami to write a terse terse response in which he denied Iranian involvement and noted that the US had not only shot down a civilian Iran Air flight in 1988, but to add insult to injury the officers in charge were decorated. The downing of Iran Air 655 is to the Iranian national psyche what the hostage crisis of 1979 is to America. Rather than adopt a clean slate with Iran the Clinton administration pursued an all-or-nothing form of diplomacy.

The litmus test of both the pragmatists and reformists had failed and along came Ahmadinejad with a hardline approach. Despite his own hardline tendencies, Khamenei has been willing to grant presidents leeway to explore reforms so long as he could enjoy credit for any resulting successes and assign blame for failures. In the present era of Rouhani it was Rafsanjani who willingly acted as a shield for the risks the post-Khatami reformists took – including the Iran Deal. Rafsanjani has played the role of a revolutionary, a hardliner’s hardliner, a pragmatist and a tacit reformist. His household was an example of the complexity of womanhood in Iran as his wife and daughters covered themselves in the chador but rarely silenced their views. The corruption that is endemic in the Iranian system has tarnished his name. He has been accused of mass political murder and lauded for defending the nascent reformist movement. No single individual represents all aspects of the Nezam better than him. It is unknown how his departure will affect Rouhani’s reelection and domestic Iranian politics, which are unpredictable if nothing else. However, it is without doubt that US policymakers would be keen to study his life and play close attention to the shake-up that will inevitably result from his death.

Sign the Petition


7,350 signatures

Tell Google: Stop playing Persian Gulf name games!

May 14, 2012
Larry Page
Chief Executive Officer
Google Inc.
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, California 94043

Dear Mr. Page:

It has come to our attention that Google has begun omitting the title of the Persian Gulf from its Google Maps application. This is a disconcerting development given the undisputed historic and geographic precedent of the name Persian Gulf, and the more recent history of opening up the name to political, ethnic, and territorial disputes. However unintentionally, in adopting this practice, Google is participating in a dangerous effort to foment tensions and ethnic divisions in the Middle East by politicizing the region’s geographic nomenclature. Members of the Iranian-American community are overwhelmingly opposed to such efforts, particularly at a time when regional tensions already have been pushed to the brink and threaten to spill over into conflict. As the largest grassroots organization in the Iranian-American community, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) calls on Google to not allow its products to become propaganda tools and to immediately reinstate the historically accurate, apolitical title of “Persian Gulf” in all of its informational products, including Google Maps.

Historically, the name “Persian Gulf” is undisputed. The Greek geographer and astronomer Ptolemy referencing in his writings the “Aquarius Persico.” The Romans referred to the "Mare Persicum." The Arabs historically call the body of water, "Bahr al-Farsia." The legal precedent of this nomenclature is also indisputable, with both the United Nations and the United States Board of Geographic Names confirming the sole legitimacy of the term “Persian Gulf.” Agreement on this matter has also been codified by the signatures of all six bordering Arab countries on United Nations directives declaring this body of water to be the Persian Gulf.

But in the past century, and particularly at times of escalating tensions, there have been efforts to exploit the name of the Persian Gulf as a political tool to foment ethnic division. From colonial interests to Arab interests to Iranian interests, the opening of debate regarding the name of the Persian Gulf has been a recent phenomenon that has been exploited for political gain by all sides. Google should not enable these politicized efforts.

In the 1930s, British adviser to Bahrain Sir Charles Belgrave proposed to rename the Persian Gulf, “Arabian Gulf,” a proposal that was rejected by the British Colonial and Foreign offices. Two decades later, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company resurrected the term during its dispute with Mohammad Mossadegh, the Iranian Prime Minister whose battle with British oil interests would end in a U.S.-sponsored coup d'état that continues to haunt U.S.-Iran relations. In the 1960s, the title “Arabian Gulf” became central to propaganda efforts during the Pan-Arabism era aimed at exploiting ethnic divisions in the region to unite Arabs against non-Arabs, namely Iranians and Israelis. The term was later employed by Saddam Hussein to justify his aims at territorial expansion. Osama Bin Laden even adopted the phrase in an attempt to rally Arab populations by emphasizing ethnic rivalries in the Middle East.

We have serious concerns that Google is now playing into these efforts of geographic politicization. Unfortunately, this is not the first time Google has stirred controversy on this topic. In 2008, Google Earth began including the term “Arabian Gulf” in addition to Persian Gulf as the name for the body of water. NIAC and others called on you then to stop using this ethnically divisive propaganda term, but to no avail. Instead of following the example of organizations like the National Geographic Society, which in 2004 used term “Arabian Gulf” in its maps but recognized the error and corrected it, Google has apparently decided to allow its informational products to become politicized.

Google should rectify this situation and immediately include the proper name for the Persian Gulf in Google Maps and all of its informational products. The exclusion of the title of the Persian Gulf diminishes your applications as informational tools, and raises questions about the integrity and accuracy of information provided by Google.

We strongly urge you to stay true to Google’s mission – “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” – without distorting or politicizing that information. We look forward to an explanation from you regarding the recent removal of the Persian Gulf name from Google Maps and call on you to immediately correct this mistake.



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