It is evident that the election of Iranian political leader Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani to head the Assembly of Experts that is responsible for selecting the Supreme Guide is an important event for the Islamic Republic.
This event is exceptional on two levels: firstly, the man's nature, political heritage and experience in public affairs and, secondly, the nature of domestic and regional circumstances that have transformed Iran to be atop of current international interests.
Rafsanjani is known as a unique foundation in the structure of the Iranian political field. He descended from a wealthy family of agricultural landowners and is known as a sophisticated politician who, in his country, is nicknamed “the fox” in reference to his shrewdness. He managed to combine being close to the leader of the Iranian revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and his successor, the current leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with an open pragmatic sense that is adaptable to any information and recent developments.
Rafsanjani was the youngest member of Iran's Revolutionary Council appointed by Imam Khomeini after the revolution had succeeded in 1979, along with symbols of the new regime such as Ayatollah [Mohammed Hosseini] Beheshti, Ayatollah [Murtaza] Mutahhari and Hojjatoleslam Khamenei.
What is interesting, however, is that Rafsanjani could shy away from the direct physical and political liquidations that synchronized with the early events of the revolution. Although he was the spokesman for the new republic, he cleverly stayed away from the conflict between the clashing parties over the positions of influence in the new governance, even if he didn’t conceal his conservative dispositions and keenness on approaching Imam Khomeini who supported electing him in parliament and appointed him as a supreme commander of the Iranian armed forces.
It is noticeable that the elegant cleric, who was an apprentice of Imam Khomeini, did not embrace his inclination to the abstract philosophical topics, asceticism or his abstention to money. Rather he built and consolidated solid relations with the financial and commercial institution (bazaar) from the early days of the revolution, which became his support in the election. In Iran, there is a widespread impression that Rafsanjani is one of the richest people in the country and is embroiled in financial corruption although his close aides deny this accusation, acknowledging that many of his sons and other family members are businessmen and have close ties to the Iranian bazaar.
Although Rafsanjani's name was not present in the agenda of Khomeini's succession, who passed away in 1989, he was undoubtedly the architect of the strategy that led to the accession of Ayatollah Khamenei to leadership, for which he was not eligible according to the prevailing opinion among senior scholars and imams of the religious Hawza in view of his scientific status and juristic degree.
At that time, many members of the Assembly of Experts adopted the option of the (collective) joint leadership versus the individual leadership, regarding the case of Imam Khomeini as an exceptional and nonrecurring one in all measures. In addition, Rafsanjani has played a central role in imposing the option of individual leadership in favor of Imam Khamenei in a lucrative deal in which he assumed the presidency from 1989 to 1997.
In fact, presidency has become an important center of decision-making in the era of Rafsanjani after being in a semi-honorary position that lacks the actual executive powers.
The strong coalition between the Supreme Guide and the president has maintained Iranian political stability in the aftermath of the long war with Iraq. Furthermore, many quiet reforms began in the era of Rafsanjani. At that time, it became clear that Rafsanjani had approached the growing reformist trend from a realistic and pragmatic perspective. Although he did not support the dynamism of openness and renovation that was established by his successor reformist Mohammad Khatami, he did not stand against this dynamism and was keen to crystallize a third option that replaces the two conflicting reformist and conservative approaches. Thus he had prepared himself for the 2005 elections, which he thought had been settled for him in advance. Yet the surprise to come caught the sophisticated, shrewd Rafsanjani unawares. The desperate uprising amongst the youth took the adverse picture of Rafsanjani to the seat of power; the rebellious popular face that is reminiscent of the early stage, innocence and spontaneous activity of the revolution. Meanwhile the quarrelsome Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was not the man of transition as conceived by the Iranian people. The country has become immersed in a grinding economic crisis.
Oil production is in decline and fuel has become subject to rationing. Meanwhile, experts have predicted that Iran will have to import oil in approximately ten years if the present situation prevails. The diplomatic blockade is intensifying, international sanctions are in succession and the crisis of the nuclear issue may lead to a new war in the region.
Rafsanjani has returned to the decision-making process in these gloomy circumstances by presiding over the Assembly of Experts, after passing through all the other gates, namely the leadership of parliament and the Expediency Discernment Council. Rafsanjani has not become a leading imam; rather he has gotten closer to the supreme post of the Iranian regime. As Tehran’s sources report that Khamenei's health is in decline and he is increasingly unable to carry out his responsibilities, it seems that Rafsanjani's influence will be bolstered and his presence in the decision-making pyramid will be consolidated especially in the two biggest issues: the nuclear issue and Iraq. Recently, he has made several moderate statements that heed in the direction of appeasing the situation with the West and demonstrating readiness to contribute to putting an end to the Iraqi turmoil.
Internally, he is known for his pragmatic sense and tendency to cooperate with the bazaar in an attempt to activate the Iranian economy through openness to external markets and attracting foreign investments in the vital areas of production.
It is believed that Rafsanjani is adopting a similar model to that of the Chinese with its three pillars: economic openness, political centralization and pragmatism in international relations. Rafsanjani may become the man of center stage for the surrounding reformists and moderate clerics who have become aware of the need to let go gradually of the concept of Waliyat al Faqih [Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists] that was determined according to the standards of Imam Khomeini and is no longer suitable for the transformations of the Iranian experience.
* Published in London-based ASHARQ AL-AWSAT on September 9, 2007.