Rafsanjani’s Candidacy Undermines Supreme Leader’s Election Plan

An election that was supposed to be full of Khamenei loyalists could turn into a horserace.

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran attend a meeting in Tehran, December 19, 2010
Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran attend a meeting in Tehran, December 19, 2010 (The Office of the Supreme Leader)

Before Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registered as a contender for the Iranian presidency with only minutes to spare on Saturday, this year’s election was likely to be a largely ceremonial affair.

The disputed 2009 election, which pitted the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against a reformist candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and snowballed into a million man “Green revolution” that rocked the Islamic republic’s political system suggested that this time around, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would do everything he could to tightly control the vote. And for the first few months of this year, it did appear that conservatives favorable to Khamenei were going to be the only candidates in the race.

Rafsanjani’s candidacy has turned expectations upside down. While the former president is hardly an idealist in the mold of Mohammad Khatami, another former president, he is also far removed from the religious hardliners that surround Ayatollah Khamenei.

In stark contrast to Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, both of whom tend to rely on strong anti-Western and anti-Israel sentiment to unify the country’s political elite, Rafsanjani is a shrewd pragmatist if not a realist; someone who might be willing to sit down with the Americans if he believes it is in Iran’s best interests.

This was demonstrated most clearly during the infancy of the Iranian Islamic republic when Rafsanjani used his powerful post as parliamentary speaker and his close relationship with its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to manage the country through a long and bloody war with Iraq.

It was Rafsanjani, not Khomeini, who called publicly upon the United States in 1985 to reopen diplomatic relations with Tehran.

He also happened to be the point man in negotiations with the United States on the topic of American hostages in Lebanon, a country that was, at that time, in the middle of a brutal civil war between various sects and religions.

When he became president in 1989, Rafsanjani initiated an economic development program designed to rebuild Iran after an eight year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran’s oil industry grew to its highest level since the fall of the monarchy. Iran reentered the sphere of international finance.

Since then, Rafsanjani has remained at the top of Iran’s political system.¬†Although he ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005, losing to Ahmadinejad in a second round, he has served in the Iranian government’s Expediency Council, an advisory body to the supreme leader’s, and was the head of the Assembly of Experts, composed of scholars who have the power to elect and remove a supreme leader, until 2011.

Of all of the major candidates that have registered for June’s election, Rafsanjani is by far the most experienced and qualified. He was one of the founders of the Islamic republic, a close confidant of Khomeini’s, a senior cleric and former president. Hardliners would find it incredibly difficult to discredit him if they tried.