Stretching My Gambes

Rafsanjani’s manoeuvrings

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At Asia House on Thursday evening there was a panel discussion entitled ‘Iran in Crisis’. Whilst there were a range of issues discussed regarding the post-election fallout, one of the more interesting and pertinent discussions focused on the Friday prayers led by Rafsanjani yesterday.

Despite the candid attacks he made on the regime, a more nuanced interpretation of his speech can establish some interesting observations about the future of the Islamic Republic.

It is the first time in two months that Rafsanjani had led the prayers, and the first time since the much-debated election. Rafsanjani holds significant financial and political clout within the Islamic Republic, and heads the institution which theoretically has the ability to oust Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Assembly of Experts.

As he was firmly behind the ‘reformist’ candidate Mousavi, some observers (somewhat wishfully) hoped that this speech would directly challenge or threaten the regime. He openly criticized the illegal detentions and violence perpetrated by the regime, and appeared to question the current legitimacy of the Islamic Republic:

“Today is a bitter day… people have lost their faith in the regime and their trust is damaged. It’s necessary that we regain people’s consent and their trust in the regime.”

However, I believe the subtle undertones contained in the speech are of more significance.

Firstly, Rafsanjani appears to be positioning himself to play the role of arbiter between the various factional interests in the Islamic Republic. Indeed, Ian Black (The Guardian’s Middle East Editor) quotes one unnamed ‘veteran Iranian political analyst’:

“This was an effort to play the role of power-broker – the role that Khamenei should have played but did not.”

Secondly, a number of positive references were made towards Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – the key figure behind the 1979 revolution and the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. This played two roles: (1) as others have pointed out it is a clear invitation to make an unflattering comparison with the recent behavior of Ayatollah Khamenei; (2) it is an invitation to draw positive comparisons between Ayatollah Khomeini and Rafsanjani.

Thirdly, Rafsanjani spoke of his positive relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini.

When these three points are combined, I think an interesting observation can be drawn. Drawing favourable comparisons between himself and Ayatollah Khomeini, highlighting their positive relationship, and attempting to act as a power broker and reconciler of the Islamic Republic, suggest to me that Rafsanjani has his eyes on being the next Supreme Leader.

It is widely rumored that Ayatollah Khamenei is in the final stages of prostate cancer, and the issue of who succeeds him will be a poignant one and may well have a bigger impact on the future of the Islamic Republic than the recent unrest. Some suggest that Ayatollah Khamenei is attempting to position himself for his son to succeed him; however I feel that this is unlikely to occur.

Mojtaba Khamenei lacks any formal religious stature (less than his father – a bone of contention itself with elements of the clergy). Furthermore, in Shi’ite jurisprudence and theology there is no tradition of dynastic succession. However, valiyat-e-faqih had no history in Shi’ism until Ayatollah Khomeini.

Whatever Ayatollah Khamenei’s intentions, it will be interesting to see how Rafsanjani behaves over the coming four years and whether he maneuvers himself to become Supreme Leader. I offer the time frame of four years, as I feel, unlike some observers, that President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei are here to stay. Unless assassination or ill health removes one or both of them.

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Written by Henry Smith

18/07/2009 at 12:14

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