Iran post-Rafsanjani: The present scene and the upcoming presidential elections


At the age of 82 years, the Iranian regime’s godfather, Hashemi Rafsanjani passed away after a heart attack. While political analysts have long discussed the possible scenarios for the Iranian regime with Khamenei and Rafsanjani’s roles in balancing the regime politically and his great diplomatic ability to align with all political currents inside the regime, including conservatives, moderates, and reformists, but nobody paid attention to the possibilities for the regime’s future in the absence of Rafsanjani and survival of Khamenei.

Rafsanjani held various positions of power at every level within the Iranian regime following his participation in the 1979 revolution, even before Khomeini’s return from his exile in Paris. After the establishment of the Iranian Republic, he took over the presidency of the Iranian parliament from 1980 to 1989, then the presidency of the republic from 1989 to 1997. Thereafter, he was appointed to the presidency of the Council of Experts from 2007 at 2011. At the time of his death, he was the chairperson of the Expediency Council. Rafsanjani had made qualitative developments in the Iranian economy following the Iraq-Iran war in what was known as the rebuilding and reconstruction policy, introducing economic ‘free zones’, which have attracted more supporters among the middle class and businesspeople. Even though Bazar men did not antagonize the clergy supporter and he politically allied with them and maintained good relations with the Islamic Coalition Party “al-Mo’talefa,” the representative party of Bazar men. Rafsanjani also represented the balancing force between the Revolutionary Guards under the leadership of Mohsen Rezaei and with the Iranian Army under Sayad Shirazi during the Iraq-Iran war, especially after he was appointed by Khamenei as the acting Commander of the Armed Forces at the end of the war in 1988, and continued to have close and strong relations with the Revolutionary Guards warlords up to the time of his death.

At the level of the various parties and political blocs, Rafsanjani maintained balance, established the foundations of the Building and Construction Party, which effectively ran political life in Iran between the mid-eighties and mid-nineties, as well as acting as the spiritual father of the Reformist Current and Participation Front. Mohammad Khatami, president of Iran between 1997 and 2005, rose through the ranks as a minister in Rafsanjani’s government. Rafsanjani did not come under public political attack by any regime figures other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who demanded that he disclose his financial records in an effort to remove him from the country’s political life, as well as publicizing the acrimony between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, which increased in 2009 following the lengthy and brutal regime crackdown against supporters of reformist candidates after Ahmadinejad’s second election victory. Despite the exclusion of Rafsanjani from the presidential elections of 2013 in a behind-the-scenes political bargain, he retained his position as the Chairman of the Expediency Council, which mediates and issues judgements in legislative conflicts between the parliament and the Guardian Council. The truth is that Rafsanjani was effectively a pillar of the regime even when not in political office in whatever position he held.

» Rafsanjani and the Iranian political scene:
Rafsanjani played a significant role in the continuation of the alliance between the moderate bloc within Iran led by the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani and the reformists who expressed dissatisfaction over the past six months with Rouhani’s leadership after being excluded from the cabinet in a reshuffle which saw most of the seats granted to conservatives who broke away from their fundamentalist colleagues to align themselves with Rouhani. Rafsanjani had previously negotiated with the reformist bloc concerning interim policy, discussing ways to gradually bring them back to playing a leading role in Iran’s political life after the exclusion and political repression that they endured from 2009 to 2013, and succeeded in discouraging the reformists from fielding an independent candidate to represent them in the upcoming presidential elections in May 2017.

Concerning the relationship between Rouhani and Khamenei, Rafsanjani sought to calm the tensions which dominated the relationship between Khamenei and Rouhani last year, which came to a head between March and August 2016 in the form of heavy criticism by the Supreme Leader of both the 2015 nuclear deal and the economic performance of Hassan Rouhani’s government, with Khamenei insisting that the Revolutionary Guards’ companies be favoured in Iranian oil contracts, and rejecting the new contracts formula proposed by the Iranian oil Minister, Begin Zangana.

Following this disagreement, the conservative and reformist blocs slammed each other over a series of financial scandals over a variety of issues, including vastly inflated salaries for Rouhani administration officials and the mayor of Tehran’s distribution of state-owned land and properties to friends and relatives. Tensions between the conservatives and reformists decreased following intervention and mediation by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Nateq Nouri to prevent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from running for president again in the 2017 elections. In exchange for this, Rouhani was expected to direct his efforts in the international arena towards creating international support to pressurize the United States into implementing certain provisions within the nuclear deal. He also conducted a cabinet reshuffle, which saw a number of reformist ministers – primarily those for Culture, for Education and for Youth and Sports – whose appointments and policies had raised objections from conservatives sidelined in favour of conservative replacements.

This state of relative calm did not last long, especially after Trump won the US presidential election, raising Iranian fears that the nuclear deal might be abandoned. The US’ Congress’ approval of the extension of US sanctions for another ten years has led to further concern, prompting renewed domestic criticism of Rouhani, with conservatives once again announcing their intention to put forward a candidate at the upcoming elections; the Islamic coalition “al-Mo’talefa” party has already nominated Saeed Salim, a former minister in Rafsanjani’s government, to contest the election.

» Scenarios of the Iranian political balances post-Rafsanjani:
There is no doubt that Rafsanjani was a supporter of Rouhani and his bloc, to some extent standing in opposition to the ultra-conservative political current as he was considered a part of the conventional conservative current which to some degree converges with the moderates.
Rafsanjani was good at bargaining and at operating a pragmatic profit-and-loss policy; there is no doubt that his absence will open the door for militants to ascend among the conservative and reformist currents, with a variety of possible scenarios predicted:
1. Confrontation and early battle decisive scenario
This scenario would see the Supreme Leader and politicians from the conservative wing putting forward a hardline candidate, while preventing the Guardian Council from approving Rouhani to contest the next presidential elections. Such a scenario woud strengthens the conviction of conservatives about the failure of the nuclear deal, and Rouhani’s inability to deal with the new American president-elect Donald Trump. In this case, the reformists would once again be isolated and unable to react strongly, especially in the absence of Rafsanjani, who had close contacts with a broad variety of traditional conservatives, and would leave space for the emergence of a political movement to let the political game continues and the Iranian regime become unwieldy. In this scenario, IRGC’s potentials will be increased as well as his control over the Iranian economy; IRGC’s ambitions will increase in the actual control of all the levers of power in Iran, including the post of Jurist Leader after the death of Khamenei.
2. Status quo continuing scenario
In other words, the nomination of Rouhani and non-interception of the Guardian Council on him, with providing weak candidates by conservatives, so as Rouhani to win the upcoming elections, and the alliance between the moderates and reformers continues, but under constant pressure from conservatives and greater concessions offered by Rouhani regarding the composition of the next government, and restrictions on the reformist current. In this scenario, reformist expected to get away from Rouhani, and their resorting to unilateral or secret political act, which will be certainly dealt harshly by the security authorities or the judiciary, which appeared by the judiciary treatment with the reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi in terms of recent indictment toward judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani of financial corruption, and then the Iranian political atmosphere will be heading to tension, but relatively long-termed heading compared to the first scenario.
3. The people ruling scenario
This scenario is based on a strong presidential election management depends on providing a strong conservative candidate against Rouhani, leaving an area for the Iranian people to choose, from which the electoral participation will be supported and to push the masses to restore part of the lost confidence in the regime after the successive financial scandals. Although leaving a space of virtual freedom for people in it, this scenario will guarantee the final output of the electoral process for the supreme leader, in all cases, it can be controlled and directed, which in this case ensures the wrapping of reformers around Rouhani, and not to exit from the formal political game, and will support the regime and prevent security clashes that may tarnish the image of Iran internally and externally in a critical phase. The regime needs the support of foreign powers; particularly the European Union against the expected hostility from Donald Trump.

There is no doubt that choosing any of these three scenarios is linked to the person of Khamenei as the rest of policies of the Iranian regime, but behind the scenes Rafsanjani always had a political weight to be taken into account, to come out with the final decision by Khamenei, who carries other accounts that, with no doubt, Rafsanjani was a major figure in them. Khamenei choice of any of previous scenarios will explain what moderate and reformist have lost in the absence of Rafsanjani, which means that whenever the choice of Khamenei’s more stringent, the more impact of the absence of Rafsanjani on the moderate current.

Editorial Team