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Rafsanjani’s Fading Political Fortunes

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 23, 2011

    On March 8, 2011, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was denied re-election to the post of chairman of the Majlis-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts), a position he has held since 2007. The Assembly of Experts, Iran’s highest-ranking religious and political authority, was formed in 1983 and consists of 86 Islamic scholars. It has the power to elect, supervise and remove the supreme leader. Members of the Assembly are religious scholars who are directly elected to an eight-year term in a nationwide poll. The Assembly meets twice a year to review major national issues, and every other year to appoint a new chairman. Rafsanjani remains a member of the Assembly.

    This development was not a surprise because Rafsanjani has been under fire for sometime from the hardliners for being close to the Iranian opposition. Rafsanjani has been critical of the government’s brutal action against protests that followed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009. In February, a number of clerics with close ties to the radical Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi, a member of the Assembly of Experts and also the spiritual mentor of Ahmadinejad, had started a campaign in the Assembly against granting Rafsanjani another term. This campaign received strong support from clerics like Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati, Mohammad Yazdi, and Abbas Kaabi. In an earlier move, hardliners had removed Rafsanjani as the leader of Friday Prayers in Tehran. In addition to targeting Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s government has also turned its ire on his family members. Recently, Rafsanjani’s son, Mohsen, was sacked from the top post at Tehran’s subway while his other son, Mehdi, continues to remain in exile.

    Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani had clashed directly during the 2009 presidential election. Ahmadinejad went to the extent of saying that he was not challenging Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leader of green movement, or Mehdi Karroubi, the former speaker of parliament, his rivals for the presidency, but that Rafsanjani was his main political competitor. Subsequently, Rafsanjani had written a letter to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, warning that Ahmadinejad’s policies and approach are harming the Islamic Republic. Iranian hardliners, in turn, accused Rafsanjani of showing disloyalty to the Supreme Leader and demanded that he declare his loyalty to the regime and to Ali Khameini. Rafsanjani reacted to this by saying that “enemies of the regime are trying to drive a wedge between me and Khameini... I expressed my position against the fitna (civil strife) movement (i.e. the protest movement of 2009) in an Assembly of Experts declaration...”

    In order to avoid an open rupture, Rafsanjani also withdrew his candidature for the position of chairman of the Assembly of Experts in favour of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, a moderate conservative and a political ally. Rafsanjani explained his move thus: “in the last few days, a controversial atmosphere had been created for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts and I found that this move is very harmful for the system. I felt it is dangerous and so I thought I could resolve the problem.” It is believed that Mahdavi Kani decided to contest for the post only at Rafsanjani’s request. Rafsanjani wanted to stop hardliners like Ayatollahs Ahmad Jannati and Mesbah-Yazdi from attaining the highest position in the Assembly of Experts.

    Rafsanjani losing the position of chairman of the Assembly of Experts is a gain for Ahmadinejad and the hardliners. This development also indicates the loss of influence for a political faction that has been calling for more personal freedoms and for modernising the role of Islam in the political system. This is, however, not the first instance in this reversal of political fortunes. Some months ago, in December 2010, Ahmadinejad had also dismissed Manouchehr Mottaki as foreign minister, a decision that shocked the international community and even Iranian experts because Mottaki was seen as Khameini’s choice. It thus appears that the hardliners led by Ahmadinejad are not only ranged against the reformists but also possibly against the supreme leader Khameini himself. The hardliners’ victory is, however, not yet complete. They still have to contend with the present Majlis Speaker, Ali Larijani, and Tehran Mayor, Mohammad Qalibaf, who are loyal to Khameini.1

    Till now, Rafsanjani was considered a counterweight to Ahmadinejad and the hardliners even by Khameini. However, the denial of an important and powerful post to him indicates his loss of influence. Will Rafsanjani be able to resurrect his fading political fortunes in the parliamentary elections due next year?

    • 1. Ayandenews, Iran, March 4, 2011.
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