Man in the shadows
Rafsanjani eyeing the presidency
By Dariush Sajjadi
August 25, 2000
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's letter to the Majlis to remove the press
law amendment from its agenda pitted him against public opinion, as the
amendment had huge popular support. He openly confronted the reformists
for the first time since President Khatami's election and elicited the
wrath of Iranians and world public opinion.
Given that all Majlis bills have to go through the conservative Council
of Guardians and, on occasion, the Expediency Council, for final approval,
Khamenei's direct intervention was not necessary. But the fact that he
has could be interpreted as a measure tactfully orchestrated by the chairman
of the Expediency Council, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a
master of covert diplomacy in Iranian politics.
Rafsanjani, who faced a severe and unexpected defeat in the sixth Majlis
elections after the reformist press lashed out at him, spent some time
in the shadows harboring a deep grudge against the reformist press.
After his defeat in the elections, Rafsanjani, as chairman of the Expediency
Council (which oversees and settles disputes between the Majlis and Council
of Guardians), had two choices. First, he could settle inevitable differences
between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians in favor of the reformists
and thus improve his tarnished political image by getting close to the
reformists. Second, he could adopt a hostile stance toward the reformists
by dismantling their legislations in a bid to take revenge.
Some analysts contend that the mass crackdown on the independent press
is the inevitable outcome of the reformist papers' battle with Rafsanjani.
In confronting him, the reformist press paid no heed to his power and influence.
If the reformists had befriended Rafsanjani instead, they could have averted
their current bitter fate.
Rafsanjani's recent Friday prayers sermon in which he decisively defended
the Leader's constitutional right to steer the course of reforms is an
important signal. The night before, Rafsajani was in a joint meeting with
Khamenei and heads of the three branches of government. The importance
of the signal lies in the fact that 48 hours after the sermon, the Leader
sent his letter to the Majlis intercepting the press law amendment, proving
This is typical of Rafsanjani's unique political tactics. In 1988, the
same tactic was at work when in an exclusive interview with the Tehran-based
moderate newspaper Ettelaat, he recounted memories of the early
days of the revolution and noted that he recommended Khamenei for membership
in the Revolutionary Council, which was set up by Ayatollah Khomeini as
an interim govering body. Rafsanjani, in this interview, implied that he
was the one who introduced Khamenei to the political power pyramid and
as such, Iran's future Leader is indebted to him.
In the course of the press law amendment, Rafsanjani was well aware
that it was going to be easily passed by the Majlis. He also knew well
that the Council of Guardians would certainly veto it, landing it ultimately
into his own hands as chairman of the Expediency Council. Then all eyes
would have been fixed on Rafsanjani to see how he would approach the amendment
-- a situation that would have constituted a very big dilemma for him.
Given his bitter memories of the reformist papers, Rafsanjani had no
incentive to approve the press law amendment which would have strengthened
the reformist press. On the other hand, popular support for it was very
high, and Rafsanjani's opposition would have turned the public further
Apparently Rafsanjani, in a realistic evaluation, avoided this dilemma
by throwing the ball into the Leader's court by convincing him to intervene
directly, an intervention that was totally needless. It served only to
save Rafsanjani from a tough future decision. Now he is sitting in the
shadows with peace of mind, having settled his scores with the reformist
The Leader's intervention has put the reopening of banned reformist
papers in limbo. In their absence, Rafsanjani can think about running for
president next year. Four years have lapsed since his tenure as president
ended and he can legally run again. If he, by relying on his political
allies, succeeds in exaggerating the country's economic problems during
Khatami's presidency and magnifies Khatami's inability to solve them, he
can take a powerful leap to win next year's presidential elections.
To this end, Rafsanjani strives to convince the public that he has the
required management skills to improve the country's economy. Then in an
unequal battle with Khatami, who will lack the press to support him, Rafsanjani
will have high chances of becoming the next president.
Khatami, however, experienced this unequal war in the May 1997 elections
and came out victorious. But next year's presidential election will be
very different: In 2001, Khatami will have a four-year track record as
president, a track record which will allow the people to compare his performance
with that of his rivals. In case Khatami's opponents stress on the country's
unfavorable economic conditions, it would help Rafsanjani to launch his
campaign for the presidency.
It is important to note that Rafsanjani does not care about the number
of votes he gets. He attaches prime importance to victory, irrespective
of the number of votes. In case he runs for president, Rafsanjani would,
in his heart of hearts, like to win 20 million votes, as Khatami did. But
even if this does not happen, Rafsanjani would not care, as he only wants
to win, be it with 20 million votes or just 5 million. He prefers to focus
on the top layers of Iran's power pyramid.
Dariush Sajjadi is a journalist and political analyst specializing