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Has the Sheikh President Changed his Position? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Last Saturday, Tehran commemorated the 22nd anniversary of a US Navy cruiser shooting down a civilian Iranian aircraft, Iran Air Flight 655, over the waters of the Gulf, resulting in the death of all 290 passengers. Although this case was settled in the international courts in 1996 with the families of the victims receiving compensation, the Iranian government continues to commemorate the anniversary of this event each year on the pretext of calling on the Americans – who have apologized to the families of the victims – to apologize to the Iranian government, and this is a demand that does not seem possible in the short-term.

The Iranian anniversary coincided with US President Barack Obama signing into law new US sanctions against Iran which are considered to be the heaviest unilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic, and this comes just weeks after the UN Security Council adopted its fourth set of sanctions on Tehran. Tehran reacted sharply to the US sanctions, with president Ahmadinejad seizing the opportunity to warn the US and its allies of waking a “sleeping lion” repeating the same threats it made in reaction to the international sanctions, especially with regards to the right to inspect ships and freighters bound for Iran. A similar statement was issued from the office of the Supreme Leader of Iran, and the Foreign Ministry, and also from the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

It is interesting that the statement issued by former President Sheikh Hashemi Rafsanjani, Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council, strongly attacked the administration of President Obama, saying “it is an overt bullying action against Iran when the US president officially announces that they are targeting the heart of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

There is no doubt that the new US sanctions are important as these seek to impose restrictions on the fuel supplied to the Islamic Republic by international companies, especially since Iran does not currently possess sufficient capabilities to refine oil. However Rafsanjani’s statement in support of the position of President Ahmadinejad’s government is also particularly significant.

The Sheikh President is tantamount to the spiritual leader of the Iranian opposition movement that believes that President Ahmadinejad’s 2009 election victory is not legitimate, however the latest statements by Rafsanjani could be construed as support for a president that the Sheikh previously considered – in his position as a supporter of the figures of the Iranian opposition – undeserving of the presidency. These statements have caused controversy amongst observers who would not have expected the Sheikh President to defend the position taken by the regime, especially as he repeatedly warned against the manner in which President Ahmadinejad’s administration was managing the Iranian nuclear file, and also because he and members of his family were targeted by President Ahmadinejad and his neo-conservative supporters. So has the Sheikh President changed his position?

It is true that Rafsanjani was, and remains, Ahmadinejad’s most prominent opponent, and that he supported the Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami team, however we must recall that this pragmatic Sheikh was always extremely intelligent and realistic when it came to threats against the Islamic Republic, and he repeatedly proved his importance and his ability to circumvent his opponents when it came to ensuring the stability of the Mullah’s revolutionary regime in Iran. Over the past 5 years the neo-conservatives have sought to reduce the influence of Rafsanjani and his family, who over time have become a major political and economic institution within Iran, however the Sheikh President was always capable of absorbing these blows and circumventing his rivals.

After his attempt to return to the presidency during the 2005 elections ended in failure, he was able to return to the political scene through the gateway of the Assembly of Experts, becoming the Chairman of this body which is responsible for electing and removing the Supreme Leader of Iran. Rafsanjani also recorded a victory over his rival President Ahmadinejad when the Supreme Leader of Iran appointed him as Chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council that monitors the foreign policy followed by the President. This was viewed as a gesture by the Supreme Leader of Iran to soothe Sheikh Rafsanjani following the legal prosecution that was brought by President Ahmadinejad’s supporters against his sons.

The rivalry continued between the President and the Sheikh, and it was clear that the office of the Supreme Leader exploited the tension between the two parties; sometimes granting victory to one side, or the other. It is also worth noting that the Supreme Leader supported Rafsanjani during the elections for the Chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts in March 2009, however relations between Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader cooled after the Supreme Leader offered his support for Ahmadinejad’s re-election, while Rafsanjani offered his support to Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Following the political crisis that divided the political elite and highlighted the role of the Revolutionary Guards in the management of internal affairs, a split occurred between the Supreme Leader and the Sheikh President. Having sensed the danger, Rafsanjani left for the religious hawza in the city of Qom, something that was interpreted as Rafsanjani taking shelter with the mullahs in the face of the Supreme Leader turning to the military. During the short period that he spent in Qom, the Sheikh was able to influence the scholars and the senior clerics, something that became a great source of concern to the Supreme Leader of Iran.

Recently, President Ahmadinejad has tried to pass a resolution through the Shura Council placing Iran’s Islamic Free University [IFU] under the supervision of his government’s Ministry of Higher Education. This university is a higher body comprising a number of religious universities and institutes within Iran, and it also has branches abroad; Sheikh Rafsanjani was one of the most prominent founders of this university and he serves as Chairman of its Board of Trustees. The IFU is considered to be one of Rafsanjani’s most important domestic tools, as well as a significant source of funding for his charitable organizations. The university and its branches also continues to be a source of disturbance to the neo-conservatives, and its Board of Trustees includes a number of Ahmadinejad’s most prominent opponents, including presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. The university’s professors and students – the majority of whom belong to the upper middle-classes and are members of religious families – played the primary role in supporting the moderate pragmatic position within the Iranian regime. IFU students formed the majority of the demonstrators who took to the streets to protest against the results of the Iranian presidential elections and to condemn the flagrant interference of the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia in repressing the opposition.

The attempt by President Ahmadinejad and the neo-conservatives to gain control of the university was aborted following the intervention of the Supreme Leader, who feared that the issue would be transferred to the Expediency Discernment Council which is still being presided over by Rafsanjani despite the pressure that is being placed upon him to relinquish this position. Therefore Rafsanjani circumvented the government through offering his indirect support to the regime over the issue of sanctions.

Rafsanjani is truly one of the most cunning politicians in the Middle East; he was a revolutionary in the time of revolutions, and a pragmatist who believed in free trade during the time of post-war reconstruction, restoring Iran’s relations with the Gulf and Europe in search of markets. It is amazing that the Sheikh President who was the enemy of students during the 1999 protests in his capacity as the senior conservative has today become their leader, calling for freedom and reform.

Years ago, US journalist Mike Wallace asked Rafsanjani whether Iran has changed its position regarding the possession of nuclear weapons, asking him to swear to God to confirm his words, to which the Sheikh replied “Only liars are obliged to swear to God.” For the Sheikh President, his positions are fixed, however times change.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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