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A palace coup in the making
A rift has opened deep in the power structure of the Islamic Republic


June 16, 2006

Ever since Hashemi Rafsanjani was defeated in his last bid to become president of the Islamic Republic (again) in June last year, observers have speculated on his future in the establishment and his likely next moves. He bitterly complained about the election that saw his unassuming rival Mahmood Ahmadinejad sweeping to power. At the same time, he refrained from lodging an official complaint for what he saw as "vote-rigging" and "vote-fixing", on the grounds that "the people who are supposed to deal with these violations are the same who have committed them". This, coming from someone who has been the main pillar of the Islamic Republic since its formation, and who still carry a lot of weight both on and off the scene, sounded ominous.

Mr. Rafsanjani is arguably the one person who has most influenced the Islamic regime in Iran. He has been at the centre of Iranian politics since the 1979 revolution and holding high positions of power. Soon after the revolution, he moved into the Interior Ministry before becoming Speaker of the Islamic parliament (Majles) where he stayed for 8 years. Then, immediately after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini he became President of the Islamic regime, but only after changing the constitution to give his office executive power. He stayed in this position for two full terms totalling 8 years (maximum allowed by the constitution). Then he was out of office, but not out of government: he immediately assumed the position of Chair of the Expediency Council, an appointed body of high-ranking officials of the regime working both as an arbiter in disputes between other organs of the government, and as initiator of long-term strategy and plans of the Islamic Republic. He has held this position since 1997.

This means that Mr. Rafsanjani has been one of the 3 or 4 most powerful officials of the Islamic regime for over 25 years. But in reality, he has always been the strongman of the regime, wielding power far above his official position. During the first 10 years after the revolution when Khomeini was alive, he was the most powerful figure in the establishment, influencing all institutions of power. He was even instrumental in crowning his old mate Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader after the demise of Ayatollah Khomeini. Before that, Khamenei had served as a ceremonial President for 8 years with not much power to rival that of Rafsanjani. During the whole period of 25 years, Rafsanjani has also built a powerful empire of vast economic and political networks ran by his extensive family and clan associates, many of whom holding key positions in state bodies and enterprises.

It was against this background that Rafsanjani entered the race for presidency last year, being almost certain that the establishment would not dare not letting him win the race. When he found himself being challenged in the second run by the little-known political midget Ahmadinejad he was both surprised and alarmed. Few observers could have predicted that Ahmadinejad could beat other favourites to go into the second run. It was by now obvious that some machination was in place to manipulate the system in favour of Ahmadinejad, and this worried Rafsanjani and his election officials. Many reformists organised a "stop-Ahmadinejad" campaign and rallied around Rafsanjani. But this did not help -- Ahmadinejad produced another surprise and declared the winner by a comfortable margin.

It was obvious to all that the election has been manipulated extensively to produce this result. Mehdi Karrubi, the only other clergy in the race, who narrowly lost the second position in the fist run of the election to Ahmadinejad (and so lost the chance of entering the second run) filed a long list of anomalies and clear cases of manipulations of the election system, and pointed the finger directly at the office of Supreme Leader and in particular to his son, Mojtaba, whom he accused of extensive vote-rigging. When the second run was over, Rafsanjani made similar allegations but in general terms and without naming names. When asked why he didn’t complain officially about these violations, he said (as quoted earlier) “the people who are supposed to deal with these violations are the same who have committed them". In the circumstances, nobody was left in doubt of whom he had in mind.

The power structure in the Islamic Republic is built around the Supreme Leader, who has absolute power over all the institutions, whether appointed by him or "elected" by the people. Officially, election complaints are lodged with the Guardian Council whose task is to monitor it. It was well within Rafsanjani’s rights to lodge a complaint and see what happens. In the event that the Guardian Council could not resolve the issue satisfactorily, he could refer the case to the Supreme Leader for a sympathetic view, and whose words would be final. That was the case in the days of the leader of the revolution Ayatollah Khomeini. Now that Khamenei was sitting in his place, Rafsanjani could have expected more sympathy in a blatant case like this. Except if he had suspected Khamenei and his entourage being part of the problem rather than the solution, something that Karrubi has alleged publicly and Rafsanjani himself alluded to in his statement.

Whatever the details, it was obvious that a rift has opened deep in the power structure of the Islamic Republic. Against Rafsanjani and his cliques, a powerful block has been formed consisting of veteran revolutionary guards, paramilitary commanders loyal to Khamenei and ultra-conservative clerics headed by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. This block has also got Khamenei’s ears with powerful agents of their own in his office.

The two camps started swiping at each other right after the election. However, most of the skirmishes so far have been by proxy and indirect. But two weeks ago, the gloves came off. Rafsanjani was due to speak in Qom on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. The meeting was violently disrupted by members of the Mesbah camp shouting him down. Worse than that, they were chanting "marg bar zedd-e velayat-e faqih" (death to those opposed to the rule by clergy). This has been the standard government-led mob chant against various opposition groups over the last 27 years -- many of whom subsequently annihilated. It was also very ironic: Rafsanjani has not only been one of the main architects of the Islamic system based on the rule by clergy, but he has also been instrumental in promoting the present leader to this position. It was now his turn to be at the receiving end of this treatment.

There were condemnations all round of the way these elements have behaved towards this pillar of the Islamic Republic. But not from the Supreme Leader. The most he would do, reported unofficially, was to "express alarm" at this development in a meeting with Rafsanjani after his return to Tehran. This fell obviously short of condemnation in a public statement and amounted to offering no more than a lip service. It was apparent that what was started in June last year has gone much further, and a showdown was inevitable. Khamenei is apparently siding with the Mesbah camp and is not going to be swayed by his old mate and kingmaker Rafsanjani.

What has prompted this showdown is the upcoming the election for the "Assembly of Experts" -- a body of religious leaders equipped with the task of appointing, monitoring and sacking the Supreme Leader. However, due to the incestuous nature of the power structure in the Islamic Republic, only those known for their loyalty to the Supreme Leader can be qualified to stand for the election. As a result, this body has been a talking shop for its members to praise the virtues of the Leader and pave the way for their election next round. Rafsanjani is an influential member of this assembly. It is likely that if he is elected again, he may assume its presidency and so exercise some power over Khamenei and his supporters in the Mesbah camp. This is evidently not a pleasant outcome for them. And that’s why they have started this campaign to block his entry into the assembly, and perhaps to repeat the presidential election scenario, filling the assembly with their own nominees.

But the onslaught against Rafsanjani has already generated a counter-attack. Few days ago, the daily jomhoori eslami, one of the two establishment papers, carried a veiled threat against Mesbah and his associates recalling the cases of two highest-ranking religious leaders who fell from favour during Khomeini’s time, namely Ayatollahs Shariatmadari and Montazeri, and both were discredited and stripped off their positions. The paper compared their opposition to Khomeini at the time to those who now oppose Khomeini’s co-thinkers (Rafsanjani) and put them in the same brackets. Rafsanjani is known to have had played a major role in the fate of those two religious leaders (and in the bloody suppression of their supporters), and the paper’s reference to those events implied that he could do the same again -- now.

Furthermore, roozonline reported that some reformist parties have approached Rafsanjani and urged him to stand in the election for the Assembly of Experts. They obviously see him as a counterweight to the absolute power of the Supreme Leader, now being exercised more than ever before. All in all, these developments point to a standoff between the two pillars of the Islamic Republic. Khamenei is suspicious of Rafsanjani and his supporters, while Rafsanjani having been cheated out of the presidential chair with the connivance of Khamenei has enough reasons to plot against Khamenei. Moreover, he is being encouraged by the antics of Mesbah and his supporters and may see the time is right to strike back. All in all, a coup is being hatched in the palace of vali-ye faqih. And it may not be all clean and hygienic. Watch the events as they unfold...

Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.

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