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

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

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.

  • 25 June 2010
  • Posted By Shawn Vl
  • 2 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009, Persian Gulf

Iran’s Hardliners Continue Splitting

Tensions are boiling in Iran’s parliament over the government’s demand to take control over the assets of Azad University, which amounts to over $200 billion. This feud between the parliament and Ahmadinejad’s administration reflects the ongoing battles between the camps of Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad. (Azad University was one of the most successful pet projects and legacies of the Rafsanjani era.)

Recently, the hardliners organized a mob of Basijis to demonstrate against the parliament in order to make the MPs succumb to the government’s demands for changing the Azad University’s Board of Directors that are part of the Rafsanjani coterie. The mob chanted offensive slogans, like “Death to the hypocrites” and “Shame on this disgraceful assembly.”

But this intimidation actually backfired. In response, many conservative MP’s lashed out at the government of Ahmadinejad for instigating “such insolence.” This response is reflective of an emerging third conservative faction that has become disillusioned with the hard-liners like Ahmadinejad and is increasingly distancing themselves from their hostile policies. Prominent conservative elements of the Majlis, like Motahari and Larijani, are also fed up with the political tactics of intimidation employed by Ahmadinejad supporters.

Obviously, this rift in the establishment is the product of last year’s presidential elections. The post-election turmoil sparked an internal power struggle that is continuously fluctuating in its intensity. Without this constant struggle, it is unlikely that such a sensitive matter that would have so embroiled the different chambers of the Iranian government, and then have surfaced for the entire Iranian nation to see as well.

Why Rafsanjani is so important for the Greens

Six months ago in Mashad, Iran, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered a speech to a group of Iranian student activists saying: “If people want us, we will govern; and if they don’t, we will have to go.”

This might have seemed like nothing new, but it wasn’t coming from just anyone — it was said by Hashemi Rafsanjani,  Iranian cleric and a two-term Iranian president.  Still to this day known as one of the most powerful individuals in Iranian politics, Rafsanjani leads the body that has the power to unseat the Supreme Leader.

This one statement, coming from Rafsanjani, cracked the entire foundation of Velayat- e- Faghih — the rule of God’s representative over man and country.

Just a few days ago, Rafsanjani reiterated his statement when delivering a speech at the anniversary of a religious ceremony in Tehran. After welcoming his guests, Rafsanjani started speaking about the will of the people and how people are in charge of their own destiny. He said God will not take anyone to Heaven by force who doesn’t want to go himself; each person has the right to choose for him or herself the path he/she will take.

“We have to find the path of God ourselves with our own will. Our own will and that is what is important.”

These subtle political messages are common among Iranian clergies, and they regularly communicate with each other through speeches at different sermons, which can be extremely frustrating to an outsider. Rafsanjani later said:

“The path of good vs. evil has existed since the beginning of time and will continue to be around until the end of time. Humans have been and must continue to be responsible and free to choose their own path in this world.”

No wonder the hard-line conservatives have been severely attacking Rafsanjani lately. He has been around even before the Iranian revolution and has actively been one of the main pillars of the Islamic Republic establishment since its inception. At this point in time, though, he is coming to realize the incompatibility of the current establishment with the new Iranian generation and the democratic world.

He is aware that significant reforms will be needed in order for modern Iran to survive, which is exactly what the Green Movement has been saying for the past year. If the system does not bend with the demands of its people, then it will be just like what Rafsanjani said, but perhaps much harsher.

Rafsanjani: National Healer?

As one of the main pillars of power in the Islamic establishment, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani played a significant role in what became the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979.  Depending on one’s political affiliation, Rafsanjani to this day is still either highly respected or highly feared in the  internal political circles of Iran.

Rafsanjani 75, a pragmatist who deep inside believes in reforms to sustain the Islamic Republic, is the head of two very important institutions; the Assembly of Experts, which is an oversight and an electoral body to choose the Supreme Leader, and the Expediency Council that is the author of all macro policies in Iran. The Expediency Council is also a mediator for the legal disputes between the Guardian Council and the Parliament.

This past summer, it wasn’t long after the first bloody protests and after Ayatollah Khamenei issued his ultimatum to the protestors that Rafsanjani proposed his own solution to the crisis.  Eight months later today, he continues to reiterate his previous positions. He is moving forward to try to build a process for reconciling the reformists and hardliners in the hopes that they might pull the country out of the present crisis.

Hasan Rouhani, head of the Defense and National Security Commission within the Expediency Council, is now moving forward on a piece of legislation to decrease the Guardian Council’s role in the election process.  The proposal would create a new National Election Committee to oversee the election process, cutting the influence of the Supreme Leader and eliminating the role of the Guardian Council.

Although this legislation has to be approved by the Supreme Leader to become law, it is such a compelling idea that Khamenei might have to think twice about rejecting it.  If it does win approval, it just might be the momentum Rafsanjani is looking for to seek a national reconciliation.

  • 30 December 2009
  • Posted By Patrick Disney
  • 2 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009

“If they do not accept you, you do not force them to — and you leave.”

Ali Rafiei/AFP

In July, much of the discussion revolved around the role Rafsanjani might play in a national reconciliation bid.  Since the violence this past weekend, editorial pages are abuzz about the possibility that the regime might soon topple, but few have taken the time to question how such monumental changes might actually occur within Iran’s political system.

A dear friend and colleague of ours has written in to discuss just that:

Today, after a meeting with the Majlis, Iran’s Prosecutor General said that “leaders of the sedition” should be prosecuted.  On top of their sedition list is Fa’ezeh Hashemi (Rafsanjani’s daughter), along with Karrubi and Mousavi.  Rafsanjani will be more likely to go against Khamenei’s approach if his daughter is prosecuted, jailed or killed (as Musavi’s nephew was Sunday).

On December 5 (the Shiite holiday Eid-e Ghadir), Rafsanjani delivered a speech that was strikingly similar to the one he gave on July 17th–only this time his disagreement with Khamenei was clearer.  Rafsanjani said that it is “impossible to rule society by suppressing it,” and that the Prophet Mohammad told Imam Ali that “if the people accept you, then you rule. If they do not accept you, you do not force them to and you leave.”

Several sources claim that powerful players like Iran’s Minister of Intelligence are getting ready to go after Rafsanjani himself. These players want Rafsanjani expelled as Chairman of the Expediency Council.

Even if his daughter’s being targeted for arrest won’t force Rafsanjani to choose sides and join the Green Movement, the hardliners might soon make the choice for him.

  • 2 December 2009
  • Posted By NIAC
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran

Today’s Headlines from Payvand (via Radio Zamaneh)

Tehran University Students Invite Opposition Leaders to Student Day

Over three thousand students of Tehran University have signed a petition inviting opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, to attend Day of the Student ceremonies at their institution on December 7.

The students urge the two opposition leaders to renew their protests to the election events by attending the ceremonies, and to reaffirm their resistance against “despotism.”

The opposition has announced that protesters will once more take to the streets by attending the December 7 ceremonies.

For more, click here.

“Heavy Sentence” for Journalist Saeed Laylaz

Saeed Leylaz, Iranian journalist and leading economist was sentenced to 9 years in prison. Mr. Leylaz was arrested in the post-election protests to the alleged fraudulent victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections. He was the editor-in-chief of Sarmayeh daily newspaper which was banned recently. Mr. Laylaz has been an outspoken critic of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s economic policies.

For more, click here.

Divisions Exposed at Parliamentary “Unity Session”

Iran’s Parliament (Majlis) held the 2nd annual Unity Session on Tuesday. But based on the photos of the gathering, and based on the remarks of the Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani, this session actually highlighted the deep divisions in the political establishment and the society at large that have surfaced since the June presidential elections.

Many seats were left empty at what was supposed to be a “unity session.” Also, archenemies [Ayatollah Ali Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful head of the Expediency COuncil, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose presidency is considered as illegitimate by the opposition, failed to attend the gathering, even though they had been invited to address the session. Speaker Larijani, whom some believe is siding with Rafsanjani, has this to say in this regard: “Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rafsanjani did not arrive. I pray to God for their health and safety, and I hope God will resolve all issues.”

For more on the Unity Session and for pictures of an empty chamber, click here.

  • 15 September 2009
  • Posted By B. Danesh
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009

Rafsanjani’s clever call for Qods Day rallies

According to the pro-Mousavi website Jonbesh-e Rah-e Sabz, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani has artfully called for mass demonstrations of people on the occasion of International Qods Day. In his declaration, Rafsanjani asks Iranians to show solidarity with Palestinians by coming to the streets and rallying to their cause.

While the declaration makes no mention of the fragile domestic situation in Iran, it can be seen to have greater significance in light of the worsening relations between him and the Supreme Leader, as well as Rafsanjani’s earlier statement that he would resign from his posts if Karroubi were “harmed.”  By showing his power to mobilize the people, he may be attempting to forestall possible future attacks against him and his family by the new government and its supporters.

  • 4 September 2009
  • Posted By David Elliott
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009

The Campaign Against Rafsanjani

The latest analysis by Persia House, Booz Allen Hamilton’s Iran shop, is out. It has an interesting analysis of the campaign against Rafsanjani, the powerful head of both the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts. Persia House reviews the attacks by Ahmadinejad and his hardline supporters dating back to 2005 before analyzing the current situation:

In retrospect, Rafsanjani’s gamble seems to have lost. Now, with the Reformists and election opposition under severe pressure, he stands most prominently in the sights of Ahmadinejad’s cohort of hard-liners. Making matters worse for him, a new Friday prayer imam has been added to the four-man roster of Tehran prayer leaders which includes Rafsanjani; he will have less opportunity to take the bully pulpit. More recently, his son Mehdi Hashemi has been accused of embezzlement, money laundering, and forgery in a detainee’s confession, and may recently have fled to England. Rafsanjani has seen these events for what they most likely are: a “complicated conspiracy” to neutralize him.

  • 28 August 2009
  • Posted By Darioush Azizi
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Iran Election 2009

Ahmadinejad calls for prosecution of opposition leaders

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for the prosecution of opposition leaders on Friday, stating that the activists currently on trial in Tehran should not be the only ones punished. More from AP via NY Times:

“Serious confrontation has to be against the leaders and key elements, against those who organized and provoked (the riots) and carried out the enemy’s plan. They have to be dealt with seriously,” Ahmadinejad told a crowd of thousands in the capital Tehran before Friday prayers.

Ahmadinejad did not specifically name the opposition leaders. However, many hard-liners and members of the Revolutionary Guard have publicly called for the arrest of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi as well as former president Mohammad Khatami.

Ahmadinejad also admitted for the first time that detained protesters were abused in custody but also denied any government involvement, claiming instead that it was the work of Iran’s enemies and the opposition.

Ahmadinejad is referring to the external enemies’ plan, which is a considerable departure from a recent statement by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who  expressed his belief that there was no proof of a “foreign link.” Traditionally, the Supreme Leader’s word is the final point of arbitration.

  • 27 August 2009
  • Posted By David Elliott
  • 0 Comments
  • Events in Iran, Human Rights in Iran

EA: “The Regime’s Knockout Punch? Not Quite.”

Enduring America has an interesting analysis of yesterday’s events. Here’s a key part:

By the afternoon, Rafsanjani’s office was being less subtle. Mehdi Hashemi continued to declare his innocence and then turned “corruption” against Ahmadinejad, declaring that the President, as Mayor of Tehran, had “lost” millions of dollars. More importantly, I suspect, the Rafsanjani camp took the fight to Ahmadinejad’s ally and Chief of Staff, Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai, attacking his “hallucinations” and calling on both Rahim-Mashai and Ahmadinejad to back up their criticisms of Rafsanjani in court.

And then last night came the dramatic challenge to the President, from a most unexpected challenger. We had wondered on Tuesday whether the Supreme Leader was behind the fourth trial, especially given the attacks on Rafsanjani. In a speech to student leaders, he gave the answer: the opposition had not been engaged in a foreign-directed “velvet revolution” against Iran. For anyone thinking of more arrests, including leaders like Mousavi and Karroubi (and, less likely but still possible, for those throwing around spurious indictments in trials), “We should not proceed in dealing with those behind the protests based on rumours and guesswork. The judiciary should only give rulings based on solid evidence, not on circumstantial evidence.”

A three-word summary. Back. Off. Mahmoud.

Sign the Petition

 

7,349 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.

Sincerely,

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