Until just a year ago, Mehdi Hashemi was a shadowy figure on the margins of politics and business in the Islamic Republic in Iran.
His friends praised his business acumen that, so they claimed, had helped him make several hundred million dollars before his 21st birthday.
They also recalled how, in his late teens, he had visited Washington on a secret diplomatic mission in the 1980s on behalf of the late Ayatollah Khomeini. During that visit, Mehdi had toured the White House and informed his interlocutor, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, that the ayatollah was prepared to become a close ally and partner of the United States. The mission had failed to achieve its goal because American journalists, always looking for another Watergate, had spilled the beans and triggered the so-called Iran-Contra scandal.
Mehdi Hashemi’s detractors have always seen him as a wheeler- dealer acting as front man for his once powerful father Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The same detractors claim that Mehdi built his business empire thanks to juicy government contracts and questionable deals with foreign countries, notably China.
Last week, as he was contemplating his future in a luxury hotel in London, Mehdi Hashemi earned that an arrest warrant ahs been issued against him and that he would be picked up as soon as he sets foot in Iran. Among a dozen or so charges levelled against him by the Islamic Revolutionary Prosecutor is “activities against national security.”
The state-owned media have been spreading all sorts of rumours about Mehdi’s alleged contacts with un-named “foreign powers” to undermine and even overthrow the Khomeinist regime.
Whatever the truth about Mehdi Hashemi, one thing is certain: by the late 1990s he had become a symbol of nepotism and corruption in a political system that claims to be whiter than white.
Thus, when he launched his first presidential bid over five years ago, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had his eyes on Mehdi Hashemi as an easy target. Without ever naming him, Ahmadinejad claimed that the Rafsanjanis had tried to cast themselves as a new aristocracy of which Mehdi was the worst example.
With a hint here and a nod there, Ahmadinejad claimed that he would bring the Rafsanjanis to justice on unspecified charges of corruption.
Once he had won the presidency, however, Ahmadinejad realised that the Rafsanjani clan and its network of business and political allies were much stronger than he had thought.
During Ahmadinejad’s first term in office, Rafsanjani managed to retain his position as Chairman of the Expediency Council, a powerful pulpit from which he could counter may of the president’s moves.
Rafsanjani did even better. He managed to get himself elected as the Speaker of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful organ that, in theory at least, could impeach and replace the Supreme Guide.
Over the past five years, Ahmadinejad has developed an alliance with the military-security elites who believe that they have been cheated by the mullahs of their opportunity to get rich. As a result, most of the juiciest government contracts have gone to companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The Rafsanjani clan has even lost its 25-year long control of Iran’s trade with China.
Rafsanjani has always played a long game, weathering many a political storm and earning the sobriquet of “the shark”.
This is why he has refused to openly side with the anti-Ahmadinejad coalition formed after last year’s controversial presidential election. Even when Ahmadinejad ordered a cat-and-mouse game against the clan, including briefly arresting Rafsanjani’s wife and daughter, the “shark” managed to keep his cool.
For almost three decades, Rafsanjani’s cautious game has helped him survive where many others lost their political fortunes and, on occasions, even their lives. In fact, Rafsanjani is one of only two close associates of Khomeini to be still alive, in Iran, free, and in power. The other one is Ali Khamenei. All other close associates of Khomeini are either dead, in exile, in prison or, at least, out of power.
This time, however, the strategy that worked for such a long time, may prove ineffective. Ahmadinejad regards it as his mission to break Rafsanjani and, in doing so, break a whole generation of political mullahs who see themselves as the true custodians of the Khomeinist revolution.
And it is in this that Rafsanjani might find a glimmer of hope. If Ahmadinejad succeeds in bringing down Rafsanjani, would he know when and where to stop? Would he not try to undermine Khamenei’s position? After all, it is now clear that the president and the Supreme Guide do not share the same world and have different opinions on a number of key issues.
Ahmadinejad has built his political persona on two claims.
The first is that he has a line of communication with the Hidden Imam, which means that he could receive guidance from an authority far higher than Khomeini let alone Khamenei. Ahmadinejad’s second claim is that the faith that he professes is “the Iranian interpretation of Islam” and thus closer to nationalism than religion.
So far, Ahmadinejad has not succeeded in fully developing his radical reinterpretation of the o-called Islamic revolution in clear ideological terms. However, a number of his aides and allies, including Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i and Muhammad-Ali Ramin are busy concocting a witches’ brew called “the Iranian school of Islam.
In such an ideological concoction, there would be no room for political mullahs, least of all a “Supreme Guide”.
Thus, at first glance, Mehdi Rafsanjani may appear to be a small pawn that is easily jettisoned. However, his downfall could trigger an avalanche that would bury more important figures with him.
Today, the always clever Mehdi is faced with a dire choice: either contemplate a life in exile, which would mean a vote of no confidence in the Khomeinist regime’s judicial system, or return home to an uncertain future.
In exile, he would join hundreds of former Khomeinist officials who gather in the cafes of Paris, London and New York to plot the end of Ahmadinejad.
At home, he would join scores of former Khomeinist officials in the notorious Evin Prison where tens of thousands of people have been executed or have died under torture since 1979.
In the system that the late ayatollah invented, no one is safe.
No one, not even “the shark.”