Thursday,23 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)
Thursday,23 May, 2019
Issue 1327, (12 - 18 January 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The passing of Rafsanjani

The death of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has weakened President Hassan Rouhani, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

Khamenei and Rouhani at Rafsanjani’s funeral in Tehran (photo: AFP)
Khamenei and Rouhani at Rafsanjani’s funeral in Tehran (photo: AFP)

If the late Iranian cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had not used his influence and popularity in the latter’s support, Hassan Rouhani would not have won the country’s presidential elections in 2013.

Rouhani, not a particular popular candidate but well-known to the country’s hierarchy, needed a boost to defeat the other candidates in the elections.

Rafsanjani’s last bid to impose his stamp on the Islamic Republic was made by supporting Rouhani in the 2013 elections, though he died before the latter finishes his first term in office on 19 January, leaving the results of the next elections to others to decide.

Rafsanjani’s supporters, most of them moderates, have been shocked by his sudden death last week, and an atmosphere of deep uncertainty has taken hold just months before the presidential elections scheduled for May 2017.

Former president Rafsanjani, considered one of the founders of the Islamic Republic along with Ayatollah Rohullah Khomeini, saw much turbulence during his long political career.

Originally an Islamic revolutionary and ultra-conservative, he shifted his views after Khomeini’s death and became more moderate, later on being identified as a reformer.

He managed to shift public opinion in his regard, ceasing to be widely hated to becoming even popular and called a respected politician before he closed his eyes for the last time last Sunday.

With Rafsanjani’s heavyweight influence among senior clerics in the holy city of Qom and his on and off comments against Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative supporters now removed, perhaps the ground will now be propitious for Khamenei’s supporter to take the upper hand.

Rafsanjani appealed to the public when in 2009 he stood with the people over the results of the disputed presidential elections, calling them rigged. At the last Friday prayer he performed in the early summer of 2009, he warned Khamenei of “smoke in the sky”, in other words of troubles to come.

His assessment of events turned out to be right, and for months rioters clashed with the security forces up and down Iran in events that still impact the political scene.

After the 2009 elections, Khamenei cancelled his weekly private meetings with Rafsanjani and gave him an audience once a month instead, though Rafsanjani still used the opportunity to express his views, a member of Rafsanjani’s family told Al-Ahram Weekly.

The recent confrontation between Iran’s chief judge Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani and Rouhani is another example of a power struggle in the system.

Larijani, groomed by Khamenei’s ultra-conservative supporters to replace the ageing Khamenei, challenged the president over corruption allegations in public recently. In the morning of the day Rafsanjani passed away, Khamenei interfered in the argument between the two and took the judiciary’s side.

He called the dispute unimportant and said that with the help of God it would be solved. But at the same time he said that the country’s enemies were benefiting most from this public confrontation and praised the judiciary for being “brave and independent.”

This was a hint to Rouhani to keep quiet and abandon the argument with Larijani.

Rouhani had aimed to bring about greater transparency in the country’s institutions and to assure people that the government was fighting corruption.

But for the judiciary the kind of questions the president raised and the clarifications he asked for regarding its spending and revenues, with the chief justice apparently depositing public money in his personal account, were a blow that could have harmed it.

The chief justice is appointed directly by the supreme leader, and questioning his acts and authority could have challenged and discredited Khamenei.

In return, the judiciary questioned the money used in the presidential elections campaign in 2013 and spoke of a file on the president’s brother, Hossain Feridon, a top advisor to Rouhani.

Coming just months before the next presidential elections, these allegations could lead to Rouhani being disqualified from running. A spokesman for the country’s Guardianship Council, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, which oversees the elections, said on 4 January that “there is no guarantee that a sitting president can run for a second term.”

This was an indirect threat against Rouhani, who certainly wants to stand for a second term in May. With the death of Rafsanjani, Rouhani’s biggest supporter who could have used his influence with the supreme leader and mobilise the public, the job has just got harder for Rouhani.

This is also perhaps true for Iranians in general, who wanted to see a more open society and greater transparency in the system.

If Rouhani loses the elections or is banned from running, this will come as a major blow to the moderates and reformist camp, which could be eliminated from power as a result.

Hardliners mainly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps wish to take over key positions in preparation for the period after the eventual passing of Khamenei.

The death of Rafsanjani may pave the way to reaching this goal, though it is still too early to judge. Rouhani is a well-groomed student of Rafsanjani’s school of thought, meaning that his influence may continue in Iran in 2017.

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