Rafsanjani and Iran’s ‘House of Cards’
AnalysisTehran's Frank Underwood is back

Rafsanjani and Iran’s ‘House of Cards’

Once a key ally of Khamenei, then pushed out by conservatives, the former president returns in force to dominate Tehran politics

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registering his candidacy for president in May 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani registering his candidacy for president in May 2013. (AP/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The unequivocal victory of Iran’s “moderate” camp in Friday’s elections to the Majlis (parliament) and the Assembly of Experts is a resounding victory for two people: President Hassan Rouhani, who, pundits have already noted, faced in these elections a key test of his public support, and former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The cunning, indomitable Rafsanjani, 81, is the phoenix of Iranian politics, rising time and again from the political ashes.

Despite countless attempts by the conservative establishment of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to isolate him and distance him from the centers of power, Rafsanjani has given Khamenei and his supporters a new lesson in political maneuvering. If he were a Western statesman, an entire season of “House of Cards” would surely have been devoted to him.

Rafsanjani served as Iran’s president from 1989 to 1997, and was replaced by the reformist Mohammad Khatami (long since sidelined). When he tried to run in 2005 for a third term, he competed against the champion of the conservatives — and of Ali Khamenei — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani was once a key supporter of his friend Khamenei’s bid to become supreme leader. But in the 2005 presidential race, Rafsanjani suspected that it was Khamenei who stood behind a wave of publicity about his alleged corruption. A cold split developed between the two since those elections, and the divide has only grown.

During the wave of demonstrations after the 2009 presidential elections, Rafsanjani’s daughter was arrested and jailed for six months. Rafsanjani himself moved to Qom, the Shiite holy city, and was careful not to challenge the regime directly. He was removed from the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts, the body which selects the supreme leader, and as a consolation prize was made head of a consultative body that mediates between the Majlis and the Guardian Council and can disqualify election candidates.

That same body then disqualified Rafsanjani himself in the presidential race in 2013, prompting him to take “revenge” against his conservative enemies by supporting Rouhani, the relative moderate in the race.

Since then, the friendship between Rafsanjani and Rouhani has flourished, while the divide between Rafsanjani and the conservatives has only widened.

In Friday’s elections, Rafsanjani secured a majority in the Assembly of Experts, which will select Khamenei’s successor as supreme leader. Rafsanjani’s greatest opponents — conservative ayatollahs Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Mohammad Yazdii and Ahmad Jannati — were defeated, and Rafsanjani finally has reason to smile.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks to CBS on September 18, 2015. (screen capture: CBS 60 Minutes)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks to CBS on September 18, 2015. (screen capture: CBS/60 Minutes)

Beyond the personal and petty political rivalries, however, the election results are clearly an expression of support by the Iranian public for last year’s nuclear deal and the promise of a new openness to the West. While we still don’t have all the results from all the provinces, and some will yet see a second round of voting, it is already clear that the Iranian public yearns for more of that “Western influence” against which conservatives have so ominously warned.

It may be partly about ideology, or reflect an exhaustion with the ideas of the revolution, but the primary driver of this new desire for openness is the economy. As another cunning politician once put it, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Two caveats should be introduced here: First, Rafsanjani, Rouhani and their allies in the “moderate” camp are devotees of Iran’s revolutionary regime. They do not want a coup or a revolution, but rather the preservation of the Iranian system. Both were involved in past campaigns against “enemies of the regime.”

Second, with all due respect to Iranian politics and “democracy,” the conservative establishment is not defeated. Far from it. They, too, have shown that they have phoenix-like powers. The conservative ayatollahs and Khamenei have no intention of raising a white flag or quietly fading into the night. They and their allies in the Revolutionary Guards will continue to influence Iran’s foreign policy, its Middle East wars and its deployment of terror groups in various countries.

Indeed, Friday’s triumphant “moderates” will be there to help the Guards obtain ever larger funding — made possible by the very openness to the West that so troubles the hardliners.

The real battle is just beginning. The conservative establishment won’t abandon the field so quickly. This is still revolutionary Iran, the same one that operates so many terror cells across the globe. But now it has a particularly skilled and veteran operator back at, or at least near to, center stage.

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