Rafsanjani’s disqualification follows tumultuous relationship with Iran’s supreme leader


Former Iranian presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, left, listen quietly as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei officially inaugurates Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, far right, as the new president in 2005. (Aatta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

In the spring of 1992, the still-young Islamic Republic of Iran's latest legislative elections were getting off to an ominous start. The Guardian Council, an official body closely aligned with the supreme leader that can disqualify political candidates at will, had blocked a large number of politicians from the so-called "radical" camp. The radicals still in office, according to Kenneth Pollack's revealing history of U.S.-Iran ties, "The Persian Puzzle," were hamstringing the government to block a president they saw as betraying the country's founding principles.

The president at the time, a pragmatist named Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, wanted to reach out to liberalize the economy, bring in technocrats from international financial institutions and maybe even begin rapprochement with the United States. When the 1992 election came around, he apparently saw an opportunity to remove the internal opponents who'd been frustrating him. The first step was the Guardian Council's decision to block radicals from running. Although the council doesn't explain its decisions, it appeared that Rafsanjani had gotten help from an old friend, a fellow traveler in the revolutionary movement of the 1970s: Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Ray Takeyh, a respected Iran scholar, attributed the Guardian Council's decision to "the Rafsanjani-Khamenei alliance" in his 2011 book, "Guardians of the Revolution." The radicals "were to be excised from the body politic," Takeyh wrote, beginning a norm of electoral abuse that "would be a routine practice of the council from this point on" in which the body's "supervisory powers were abused for political gain." Rafsanjani and Khamenei also deployed mass media to promote their allies and blast their opponents, even launching corruption investigations into potentially troublesome rivals. By the time the election ended, Rafsanjani's allies had won by a landslide.

On Tuesday, that same Guardian Council announced that it would not allow Rafsanjani to run again for president, as he'd applied to do earlier this spring, blocking the former president from office as it had once done to his rivals. What happened in those intervening 20 years? Why did the Guardian Council, so closely allied to Khamenei, turn away the supreme leader's once-close ally? Just as in 1992, the council did not explain its decisions. But there may be some hints in former president Rafsanjani's long, tumultuous relationship with Khamenei.

When Rafsanjani first became president in 1989, they were "seen as an almost inseparable partnership," Pollack wrote. They were both high-ranking figures who had worked together under Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before and after the revolution. They'd supported one another's rise within the new Iran and had struggled to find a way forward for the Islamic Republic after Khomeini's death. At first, pragmatism served them both within Iran's kaleidoscopic domestic politics. Over time, though, they began to part ideologically.

Khamenei, Pollack argues, began to realize that he needed revolutionary credibility to retain legitimacy. His predecessor as supreme leader, Khomeini, had built a base of popular support around the 1979 revolution and its Islamist, nationalist, anti-American ideals. Khamenei, who lacked Khomeini's scholarly religious credentials, couldn't afford to be seen as ideologically impure if he wanted Iranians to see him as a legitimate successor. And that put his personal political survival at direct odds with Rafsanjani's trademark foreign policy issue: rapprochement with the U.S.

Rafsanjani, as president, ran into problems with Khamenei "increasingly on foreign policy issues, and particularly with regard to relations with the United States, Middle East peace, and exporting the revolution, he was opposed by the supreme leader himself," Pollack wrote. "Khamenei's determination to adhere to Khomeini's legacy to preserve his own legitimacy seems to have led him to make the conscious decision to support Rafsanjani on domestic political issues but to side with the radicals on foreign policy."

But that tension took time to develop. Perhaps the most remarkable episode in Rafsanjani's relationship with Khamenei came in 1995, when Iran asked energy companies to bid on a new set of oil fields for the first time since the revolution. The first signals suggested that Tehran would award the contract, worth perhaps $1 billion, to a French firm called Total, Pollack recounts. But Iran shocked the world when it announced that the field would be developed by Conoco, an American firm that has since merged with Phillips Petroleum. Such a move -- inviting Americans into Iran and its lucrative oil fields after years of searing conflict -- was taken by some as a show of good faith, and one that would have surely required the supreme leader's approval.

"We do not know how Rafsanjani convinced Khamenei (who would have had to approve the deal)," Pollack wrote, "to go along with awarding it to an American firm."

But the deal fell through. The Clinton administration, believing that it could not at once sanction Iran while profiting from its oil without appearing brazenly hypocritical, scuttled it with a special executive order. Rapprochement, as it has done since, slipped away.

In the years after that, despite Rafsanjani's promises to boost growth, the Iranian economy slowed considerably, and the pragmatists suffered. Khamenei, perhaps feeling renewed domestic pressure, slackened his support for Rafsanjani's faction, which was now seen as discredited both on foreign and domestic policies. Though his supporters lobbied for a constitutional amendment to allow Rafsanjani to run for a third term, they failed, and he stepped down in 1997. He was followed by a reformist, Mohammad Khatami, and then by the conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is now about to leave office himself.

Rafsanjani has made some show of shifting toward the right, and thus closer to Khamenei, since leaving office. He began backing right-wing hard-liners once out of office. In 2000, he used his power as the head of the powerful Expediency Council to block the legislature (staffed by a number of reformists) from investigating state agencies that reported directly to Khamenei. Those agencies, most notable the security services, had been jailing and harassing reformists and journalists.

Despite those years of post-presidential loyal service to the supreme leader, Rafsanjani is still closely associated with the signature foreign policy issue that appears so anathema to Khamenei: outreach to the United States. The supreme leader, after years of tension with his country's president during Rafsanjani's tenure, during Khatami's more reformist administration and, finally, in the now-ending Ahmadinejad era that saw the two grapple for power, perhaps does not want to grapple with Rafsanjani again.

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Max Fisher · May 21, 2013