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July 12, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 996

Iran's Presidential Elections – Another Episode In The Years-Long Struggle For The Iranian Leadership between Khamenei and Rafsanjani – Part I

July 12, 2013 | By A. Savyon
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 996

"In the elections, the people said 'no' to [Khamenei's] monopoly" - Rafsanjani[1]

"I will support Rohani as long as I live... God will make our way successful so we can solve problems together with the people. The leader will also help" - Rafsanjani[2]

"The state is not the personal property of anyone"- Rafsanjani's daily newspaper Jomhouri-e Eslami[3]

Introduction

Political observers and global media view the Iranian elections as a struggle between a reformist stream – and its purported representative Hassan Rohani – and an extremist or conservative stream – and its representatives, the losing candidates Jalili, Velayati, Ghalibaf, and Rezaei.

In our assessment, the 2013 Iranian elections are a reflection of another struggle, the years-long power struggle between Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and long-time rival, Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is a founding member of the regime. Khamenei is continuing his attempts to cement his status as the sole and undisputed leader, and relying on senior officials of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and ayatollahs loyal to him; Rafsanjani, in a move challenging Khamenei's leadership, personally submitted his candidacy for president for the first time since his March 2011 removal from the Assembly of Experts by Khamenei.[4] Rafsanjani, on his part, relies on the bazzar circles – Iran's biggest merchants – as well as on traditional ayatollahs close to him and associates who belong to his political camp now being rebuilt: Mehdi Karroubi, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and Mohammad Khatami.

Khamenei vs. Rafsanjani

The real struggle in this election was, therefore, between Khamenei and Rafsanjani. This power struggle has continued openly for a quarter of a century since the death of the founder of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Thus, Khamenei did not hesitate to disqualify Rafsanjani as a presidential candidate; a candidacy which threatened his leadership.[5] Rafsanjani, a wily old fox in Iran's political struggles, accepted his disqualification, which came as no surprise to him, but continued his struggle with Khamenei by supporting Rohani - another candidate from his camp – the camp that he is now rebuilding.

The reformist issue in the 2013 elections was and remains a smokescreen for the real rivalry between Rafsanjani, who has not relinquished his position of influence over the Iranian leadership, and Khamenei, who is striving to bolster his leadership with religious trappings. Indeed, immediately after Khamenei's camp was defeated in the elections, Khamenei associates and mouthpieces again began calling him "Imam," so that Rafsanjani and his camp could not challenge his status.[6]

The "Victory Speech" of Rafsanjani's "Stream of Moderation"

In this context, the post-election June 16 editorial in the Iranian daily Jomhouri-e Eslami, which is owned by Rafsanjani, constitutes a "victory speech" over Khamenei and his camp (see Appendix). In this editorial, Rafsanjani instructs Khamenei how the country should be ruled, and lays out the policy of the camp that he himself has headed for years and is rebuilding now; he calls this camp "the stream of moderation" so as to depict his rival's, Khamenei's, as extremist. Hence the slogan used by Hassan Rohani, both during and, especially, after the campaign – was the slogan of "moderation" – that slogan which associates him automatically with Rafsanjani camp.

In this "victory speech" editorial, the newspaper directly criticized Khamenei's policy, including his decision to personally disqualify Rafsanjani on the eve of the election. "The state," says Rafsanjani, "is not the personal property of anyone."

"Unlike those who seek monopoly and violence" – hints Rafsanjani to Khamenei and his camp – "The stream of moderation believes that its political rivals must also have the right of self-expression and of action. The state is the personal property of no man and no stream. Every single one of the people, circles, and parties has the right to action and to self-expression, under the constitution, morality, and the law."[7]

Therefore, the question with which political observers and media in the West are preoccupied, regarding whether Rohani is a reformist, has no relevance to the actual meaning and results of the election. The focus on the image of Rohani – the president-elect – as a herald of reformist change is misguided, and shifts the discussion away from the real ongoing struggle in Iran.

Rohani's victory is about neither change nor a struggle between reformists and extremists (since Khamenei had already eliminated the reformists), but about a return to the years-long pattern of struggle between Khamenei and Rafsanjani over the leadership of Iran.

The "stream of moderation" is nothing but a code name for the political camp of Rafsanjani, who personally tried to return to the leadership struggle, but after his disqualification scored a major win through the victory of his associate Rohani, who championed the slogan of "moderation."[8]

After Rafsanjani submitted his candidacy for president and his ensuing disqualification, he resumed harshly criticizing Khamenei. Not only does he blame him and his extremist policy for Iran's deteriorated state, but he also belittles Khamenei's role in the restoration that Rafsanjani will help Rohani bring about. Rafsanjani said "I will support Rohani as long as I live," in a clear defiance of Khamenei, who has been unable to eliminate him from the leadership struggle. "[As long as I live,] I will breathe for the country, the revolution, and the people." Supreme Leader Khamenei does not exist in Rafsanjani's discourse: "Unfortunately, we have many problems, but with God's help the road will be open for us to solve problems and conduct mutual relations with the world. We should not create an enemy for ourselves. We should hold mutual relations with the world. God will make our way successful so we can solve problems together with the people. The leader will also help."[9] Again, the Khamenei appears – without even his name mentioned – only in a minor supportive role in the future struggle to restore Iran's position.

One telling example of the ongoing struggle between the Rafsanjani and Khamenei camps is their differing attitudes towards the U.S. including his solution to the nuclear crisis. For years, and even during the recent election campaign, Rafsanjani has boldly preached the need for dialogue with the enemy – the U.S., so that Iran could realize its strategic goals in the nuclear talks, which are world recognition of Iran as a nuclear power and a continuation of its nuclear program, including the military option. (See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 821, Rafsanjani Calls For Dialogue With the U.S., April 4, 2012). Rohani, as a representative of Rafsanjani's camp, uses the slogan of "moderation" as code for the need for dialogue with the U.S., with the aim of securing Iran's interests – which is also the agenda of the Rafsanjani camp; it was Rafsanjani who made arms deals with the U.S. during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war).

The June 16 "victory speech" editorial also outlined the approach to the U.S. that the Iranian regime should adopt, including on the nuclear issue. Rafsanjani's paper stresses that the Iranian interest will be preserved in full, while explaining the "moderation" slogan of the Rafsanjani stream. If the enemy cannot be "surrounded" then the "stream of moderation" will respond negatively to any Western demand:

"Moderation – this does not mean reaching an arrangement with the stream of authority [i.e. the U.S], or disregarding the right of the Iranian nation. The main statement of the stream of moderation is that we can realize the rights of the nation using reason, and that we should by no means tolerate the violent rhetoric of the stream of authority.

"The stream of authority can be isolated using legal and reasonable conduct, and with reliance on international regulations; if it does not surrender, the greedy ones [i.e. the U.S.] will be given a negative response, from a position of steadfastness.

"This is the logic of moderation, which is highly implementable within [Iran], and which is desperately needed by our extremist-ridden society."[10]

Rafsanjani Rejoins Efforts For Green Movement Prisoners

Another expression of Rafsanjani's public conflict with Khamenei is his renewed call to release the prisoners of the Green Movement. On July 8, 2013, Rafsanjani's office tweeted[11] his 2009 Friday sermon in which he called on regime heads to release the prisoners of the Green movement protests in order to restore the people's faith in the regime;[12] A criticism of Khamenei for which he has been banned from delivering regime sermons since then.

Khamenei's supporters, who also feel threatened by the rise of the Rafsanjani camp, were quick to establish their interpretation of what moderation should mean and hence what should be the principles to which Rafsanjani's camp is obligated and Rohani should follow. They also warned Rohani not to deviate from Khamenei's ways and from obedience to him.[13]

At a July 8, 2013 Basij student conference, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi, who is a Khamenei associate, warned the "stream of moderation": "Anyone who deviates even a single step from the rule [of the jurisprudent] is part of the hawarij [i.e. those who abandon Islam], and anyone who steps back [from the rule of the jurisprudent] – [will remain] stuck in place. [Only] those who follow exactly, step by step, the rule [of the jurisprudent] will gain true victory and happiness...[14]

"Moderation means not fearing the enemy, accurately calculating his steps, and fighting him wisely. Moderation means courage and no giving up... We must be careful not to [allow] the dialogue of the resistance to weaken in the years to come, and to this end must explain to the Iranian people the true nature of the U.S. and Israel."[15]

Further evidence that this struggle is personal is Khamenei's decision in recent days to once again prosecute Rafsanjani's children – Faezeh and Mehdi Hashemi. Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said on July 10, 2013, that the case of Faezeh Hashemi – who is accused of violating public order – will be dealt with during July-August, 2013. He added that the case of Mehdi Hashemi will also be dealt with soon.[16]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Iranian presidential election and its outcome are a reflection of the years-long struggle between Rafsanjani and his camp and Khamenei and his, with the former representing the only real challenge to the latter. The struggle of the reformist circles, such as those represented by former preside Mohammad Khatami, or of extremist-messianic circles, such as those represented by outgoing president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are purely secondary; at this time they remain on the margins of the Iranian political system and are irrelevant to the real power struggle going on in the highest echelons of the Iranian regime.

Appendix: Excerpts From June 16 "Victory Speech" Jomhouri-e Eslami Editorial **

The following are excerpts from the editorial:

"1. Electing Hassan Rohani president is an important event for Iran... The important point is that the 'yes' most of the Iranian people said to Rohani is a 'yes' for moderation and a 'no' to extremist thinking. By giving a resounding 'yes' to the candidate with the slogan of 'moderation,' who questioned the validity of extremist thinking in all his campaign speeches and announced that he would put an end to this dangerous thinking, [the Iranian people] delivered a loud message to all that it is averse to the extremist stream and wishes the stream of moderation to rule the country.

"2. Moderation – this does not mean reaching an arrangement with the stream of authority [i.e. the U.S], or disregarding the right of the Iranian nation. The main statement of the stream of moderation is that we can realize the rights of the nation using reason, and that we should by no means tolerate the violent rhetoric of the stream of authority. The stream of authority can be isolated using legal and reasonable conduct, and with reliance on international regulations; if it does not submit, the greedy ones [i.e. the U.S.] must be given a negative response, from a position of steadfastness. This is the logic of moderation, which is highly implementable within [Iran], and which is desperately needed by our extremist-ridden society.

"3. The victory of the stream of moderation must never be seen as eliminating others. This attitude contradicts the essence of moderation. The stream of moderation aspires to attract and not to repel. Even the extremists must be restored to the moderate path with advice and guidance. The moderate government is a national and pan-partisan unity government that will use all appropriate and skilled forces from all political circles. This method could restore society to the status befitting of the Islamic republic regime and pave the way to solve problems...

"4. In addition to the votes cast for Hassan Rohani, we must view the votes cast for other candidates who do not belong to the extremist stream as the people's tendency towards moderation...

"5. The role of the Leader in holding valid elections and [giving] the people the feeling of freedom to vote deserves much praise. Since the beginning of the year [i.e. March 2013] and until now, he stressed several times that he has but one vote and that no one knows who he intends to cast it for. With this important step, he prevented exploitation [of his name] by opportunists. While casting his vote, he honestly stated that even his family and children do not know who he is voting for. This clear and staunch position fulfilled an important role in holding transparent elections, and he must therefore be praised for his proper approach.

"6. There is no doubt that Hashemi Rafsanjani's support of Hassan Rohani greatly helped attract the people to the ballots and guide them to vote for Rohani. Rafsanjani is now the symbol of moderation in the country and the people's wide support for his presidential candidacy showed this clearly. Despite the people's sorrow for Rafsanjani's disqualification from this race, his honorable behavior during this affair, his call to the people to participate in the election, and his support for Rohani greatly influenced the atmosphere of the election and fulfilled a main role in creating the people's epic story of heroism. This is an important lessons for the extremists – the more they attacked Rafsanjani during the past eight years, [the more] they added to his popularity, and thus, according to their estimates, if he had remained a presidential candidate he would have received over 30 million votes.

"7. Unlike those who seek monopoly and violence, the stream of moderation believes that its political rivals must also have the right of self-expression and of action. The state is the personal property of no man and no stream. Every single one of the people, circles, and parties has the right to action and to self-expression, under the constitution, morality, and the law...

"8. The elections of June 14 showed that unlike the negative propaganda and the erroneous estimates that did and still do exist regarding the clerics, the Iranian people desires the clerics... The election of Rohani showed the people's inclination towards the clerics and also conveyed to the group of clerics that joined the extremists the message that the honor of the clerics must be preserved and that clerics must not be dragged into extremism...

"9. We must remind here that Hassan Rohani deeply believes in the Rule of the Jurisprudent and will undoubtedly carry out his role as part of the constitution and the leader's policy, and unlike several current officials, he will avoid creating tension. He properly understands the sensitive conditions in the country, and while respecting the great men and receiving assistance from experienced managers and skilled forces, he will make an effort to solve the internal and external problems..."

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project.

**Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI. He assisted on this report and translated the Appendix.

Endnotes:

[1] ILNA (Iran), June 18, 2013.

[2] Inn.ir, July 10, 2013.

[3] Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), June 16, 2013.

[4] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 673, In Iran, End of an Era: Assembly of Experts Chairman Rafsanjani Is Removed, March 8, 2011.

[6] See, for example, the IRGC's statement congratulating the "Imam" Khamenei on a successful election. Fars (Iran), June 16, 2013.

[7] Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), June 16, 2013.

[8] It should be mentioned that in 1995, Rohani was quoted in Rafsanjani's Ettelaat daily as having said: "The beautiful slogan 'death to America' unites our nation." Photo of the headline from Ettelaat, May 17, 1995 can be seen at: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4X3clHgLMKE/UcwOeB8ptcI/AAAAAAAACGw/zrQaWCDuZOI/s1600/Drrowhani.jpg

[9] Inn.ir, July 10, 2013. In the meeting, Rafsanjani also said: "I do not fear those who desire ill for the revolution or the hatred of the rootless extremists. Thus far, they have achieved the opposite result." Entekhab (Iran), July 11, 2013.

[10] Jomhouri-e Eslami (Iran), June 16, 2013.

[13] Senior political analyst and Khamenei associate Amir Mohebbian also warned Rafsanjani: "I do not know if Rafsanjani is pleased with his disqualification but I figure that he expected it. Rafsanjani knows full well that acting behind the scenes in the Rohani government, or as a shadow president behind Rohani, will only do Rohani serious damage. Asr-e Iran (Iran), June 25, 2013.

[14] ILNA (Iran), July 8, 2013.

[15] Fars (Iran), July 8, 2013.

[16] Sharghdaily.ir, July 10, 2013.

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