June 3, 2015 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1164

The Power Struggle In Iran – Part XVII: Rafsanjani Lays Claim To Iranian Leadership – Despite His Loss In 2015 Assembly Of Experts Election

June 3, 2015 | By A. Savyon, Yossi Mansharof, and E. Kharrazi*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1164


In recent months, the leader of Iran's pragmatic stream, Expediency Council head Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has passed a major milestone in his struggle against the ideological stream in Iran, which is led by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Following Rafsanjani's March 2015 defeat in the interim election in his bid for the position of head of Iran's Assembly of Experts - a position that he previously held until March 2011, when he was removed by Khamenei[1] - Rafsanjani has begun to implicitly lay claim to the leadership of the country. He has harshly criticized the ideological establishment's resistance to openness, which, he said, could lead to its collapse.

In April 2015, Rafsanjani stated that the widow of regime founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had said, prior to the 2005 presidential election, that with his death, her husband had "passed the Islamic Revolution on to" Rafsanjani. Additionally, according to Rafsanjani, Khomeini had told him two months after he agreed to end the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war by accepting U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 - a move proposed to him by Rafsanjani and described by Khomeini as a need to drink "the poisoned chalice" - that "poisoned chalice" had become sweet to his taste.[2] Rafsanjani also implicitly described Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as "zealots and imbeciles" who had in the past harassed Khomeini himself.  

Rafsanjani's statements came under fire from officials in Iran's ideological camp, among them IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Kayhan editor Hossein Shariatmadari, who called Rafsanjani a liar. They said that with his support for rapprochement with the West, he had deviated the Khomeini doctrine, and that he was no longer authorized to quote Khomeini. In response, Rafsanjani's office published a speech delivered by Khamenei early in his tenure as Supreme Leader, in which he stressed that Rafsanjani's statements about Khomeini were indisputable, because Rafsanjani had been the figure closest to him.

In advance of the 2016 national election for the Assembly of Experts, it was announced that the body would be expanded to include an additional 13 members - an apparent attempt by the ideological camp to ensure a majority of supporters of Leader Khamenei. As further evidence of the ideological camp's measures against Rafsanjani, his son, Mehdi Hashemi, was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges concerning economic corruption and security offenses.

This paper will discuss Rafsanjani's loss in the internal election for the Assembly of Experts and his attempts to lay claim to the leadership of Iran.

Rafsanjani's Loss At The Assembly Of Experts

In the March 10, 2015 interim elections for the leadership of the Assembly of Experts,[3] the 86-member body that oversees the functioning of the Supreme Leader and chooses his successor, Rafsanjani suffered a stinging loss, in spite of the written promise of 40 Assembly members to support him.[4] After the first round of voting, in which Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and Rafsanjani each received a majority, with 35 and 25 votes respectively, Yazdi beat Rafsanjani in a second round, 47-24.[5] Yazdi will now head the Assembly of Experts until national elections are held, on February 26, 2016.

Instagram account of Rafsanjani's office: "Most of the Experts [in the Assembly] will vote for Rafsanjani" (Source: Mashregh, Iran, March 10, 2015)

The ideological camp claimed that with this loss, Rafsanjani was paying the price for supporting the Green protest movement in the unrest that followed the 2009 presidential election, and that his election loss would also affect the status of President Rohani, Rafsanjani's prot├®g├®. Pragmatic camp circles quoted Rafsanjani as saying that he had chosen to run despite the risk, since he could not stand by passively. They said that even though he had failed in his bid for the leadership of the Assembly in the interim election, he could still emerge victorious in the national elections in February 2016.

However, as part of the preparations for those elections, the ideological camp announced that 13 new members would be added to the assembly - likely in order to ensure that Khamenei will retain full control of it.[6]

Vatan-e-Emrooz: "The nation's Assembly of Experts gives a decisive no [to Rafsanjani]: Despite his efforts, Rafsanjani loses 47-24 to Yazdi in elections for assembly leader."

Vatan-e-Emrooz: Rafsanjani's Loss Will Impact Rohani's Status As Well

The March 11, 2015 editorial, "Assembly of Experts Sends Message to Rohani," in the daily Vatan-e-Emrooz, which is affiliated with the ideological camp, stated: "[The outcome] of the Assembly of Experts elections sent Rafsanjani the message that his negative potential has substantially increased due to his statements, even within the assembly itself. The assembly's vote for Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who stood fast against the fitna [in 2009] and against Rafsanjani who joined the fitna, is emblematic of society's inclination against him and his ilk for the leadership of the country... Rafsanjani's negative potential increases every day, and it will also have negative consequences for his friends in the Rohani government. As Rafsanjani's support for Rohani grows more public, Rohani's social base becomes weaker.

"The sentence in the trials of Mehdi Hashemi and A.H.[7] has yet to be handed down, but their punishment by the judiciary will undoubtedly send the people an additional message that will harm their popularity. In this situation, we must now see whether Rafsanjani and his political circle will reenter, with all their might, the upcoming parliamentary, presidential, and Assembly of Experts elections. Will Rafsanjani cut back his political activity, or does he still intend to put himself to the public's test?"[8]

Majlis Member: Rafsanjani's Positions Are Very Much Removed From Those Of The Country's Revolutionaries

In an interview with the website Tasnim, Majlis member Nasrollah Pajmanfar, from the ideological camp, said: "[The outcome] of the elections for Assembly of Experts head show that Rafsanjani has failed to preserve his status among the elites and the people. His loss shows that his positions on the events in the country, especially the fitna of 2009, have gradually distanced him from the country's revolutionaries... His associates, and especially his family, played a highly effective role in these events. Rafsanjani's current positions and beliefs are very much removed from the positions of the revolutionary elites."[9]

Pragmatic Camp: Rafsanjani Can Win Upcoming Assembly Of Experts Election

Iranian Intellectual: Rafsanjani Ran To Thwart The Extremists Who Threaten The Regime

In a March 11, 2015 editorial in the daily Shargh, reformist intellectual Sadegh Zibakalam said: "After the results of yesterday's elections became known, Rafsanjani uttered a single phrase: 'I could not and cannot remain silent. I carried out my duty for the revolution and regime while setting aside the 80 years of my political prestige.'[10] Zibakalam added that Rafsanjani acted out of his understanding that "the most acute danger to the regime in the long run is not foreign enemies but extremists at home."[11]

Asr-e Iran: Rafsanjani Amassed Political Capital That Could Help Him In The Upcoming Election

A March 12, 2015 article titled "Was Rafsanjani Mistaken In The Risk He Took In The Assembly of Experts [Elections]?" in Asr-e Iran, which is associated with the pragmatic camp, stated: "Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani's loss in the elections for head of the Assembly of Experts makes the public wonder whether he did not have estimates of [the number of] his supporters and acted rashly - or whether he was counting on more support from [assembly] members who did not come through [for him]... How can such a seasoned politician not make calculations in advance? Had he no idea of the inclinations of the 86 assembly members? ... We must assume that he was not expecting Ayatollah Moumin to change his vote to Ayatollah Yazdi [in the second round]... Rafsanjani acted exactly as he should have. He ran again, but lost. However, he amassed [political] capital that he might use next year [in the February 2016 elections].

"The Assembly of Experts should have been far removed from political partisanship. However, due to Rafsanjani's moves and Yazdi's insistence on running against him, the assembly may now be divided into three factions: the Rafsanjani faction, the traditionalist [faction], and the stability [faction, led by Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi]. This is unprecedented in the 32-year history of this body. The Assembly of Experts is more political now than ever before.

"Rafsanjani lost, but this does not mean the end of his political career. Whether he miscalculated or whether he knew in advance [that he would lose], he sent two messages: First, he is still a man of action and not [a mere] observer... Second, he represented a faction that last year was in the minority in the assembly and that wants to become a majority next year [in the 2016 elections]. The people have already understood... that it should take the Assembly of Experts more seriously - and the Guardian Council should likewise be more serious in determining the eligibility [of the candidates]."[12]

Aftab-e Yazd: "Hashemi [Rafsanjani] Blocked Again" (March 11, 2015)

Rafsanjani Implicitly Lays Claim To Iranian Leadership: Khomeini's Widow Said He "Passed The Revolution On" To Me

At an April 12, 2015 memorial ceremony for Ayatollah Khomeini's widow Khadijeh Saqafi, Rafsanjani said: "The Imam [Khomeini]'s home, writings, and children can be a source of hope for the people... because the people know them. [His grandson] Hassan Khomeini is a model jurisprudent... If some people who take an extremist approach on matters of religion, and the Concerned [term in Iran for critics of the pragmatic camp's approach] harass [the pragmatists], then they also harassed the Imam [Khomeini] in his day - [nevertheless,] the masses accepted [Khomeini's] family, and we must not allow this worthy circle... to be weakened by zealots and imbeciles whose efforts [to damage this family] have so far achieved only the opposite. We must preserve the path of the Imam Khomeini, because society needs this; it is vital to preserve the writings of the Imam, and particularly to [preserve] his domestic circle...

"The main problem with the [1906-1911] Constitutional Revolution was its failure to rely on the common folk. Any revolution without roots in the masses is meaningless. This was proven at that time, and that revolution quickly became a dictatorship like we never saw before. This dictatorship's excuse [for its tyranny] was [that it was enforcing] security. Reza Shah ruined everything when he rose to power. He destroyed the Shi'ite religious centers, and the so-called modernists launched withering attacks on the clerics... The Imam Khomeini said that we have two major faults, and that as long as they are not addressed, other problems [will not be addressed either].

"First, we must remove tyranny in Iran. Tyranny does not allow talent in the country to grow and flourish. Fear makes the people and society miserable. A nation that is afraid and that fawns [on its regime] in order to carry on with its life can never get anywhere. Second, [we must free Iran from] imperialism, which does not allow a nation to be free...

"The Imam Khomeini said this at a time when no one had the courage to say this. His statements about Mohammad Reza Shah were like a nuclear bomb; he told him, 'Do not do anything that will make the nation expel you from the country'... The three most fundamental and important elements in Imam [Khomeini's] movement were to shatter tyranny, to remove imperialism, and to bring the people into the arena. In my opinion, a society with these three elements will never be defeated nor oppressed, and will [only] prosper. Of course, there are always domestic and foreign elements that do not pay attention to these elements, and are concerned only with why some young women dress improperly. It is important to adhere to the laws of the religion - no jurisprudent denies this - but what about other issues like oppression, usurpation, unnecessary arrests, and the loss of the people's rights?

"With regard to elections, the Leader [Khamenei] explicitly stated that the people's votes are the people's right. This is not a political statement, but a religious ruling... and failure to obey this is oppression... This right is also presented in the constitution of the regime...

"Khomeini also thought about what would happen after his death. He established the Expediency Council [of which Rafsanjani has been a member since its formation and which he has headed since 2002] to resolve conflicts between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, and ended the war [with Iraq] by 'drinking the poisoned chalice,' because he knew that after his death no one would be able to wage it. He said, 'I drank the poisoned chalice,' but two or three months after the war, he told me, 'The poisoned chalice has become sweet for me.'

"After the Imam's death, his widow told me that she would help wherever she could. The night he died but before official word went out, the war had still not ended, and I sensed danger. In the Jamaran neighborhood [of Tehran, where Khomeini lived] there was an uproar, and people in [Khomeini's] house were weeping. Friends asked me to go to the Imam's house and ask them to calm down. I spoke with the Imam's widow about the situation, and the house grew quiet. The next day, we had an Assembly of Experts meeting, during which [Hassan] Rohani, my deputy at the time, said that according to news from the front lines, [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] was planning to attack several regions [of Iran]. I informed the Assembly of Experts of this, and the issue was resolved in a good way that same day. That year I truly did not want to run for president, various people came to speak with me [about this] but I did not agree. The Imam's widow called to me and said, 'The Imam has passed the revolution on to you, and you want to hand it to somebody else?'... I was shaken by her words, and agreed to run for election."[13]

Ideological Camp Officials: Once Again, Rafsanjani Distorts History To Reconcile With America

In response to these statements, ideological camp officials launched scathing attacks against Rafsanjani. On April 13, 2015 IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said that Rafsanjani's calling regime loyalists, who had sacrificed more martyrs than anyone else for the regime, "religious extremists who harassed the Imam [Khomeini]" stemmed from his "dangerous anger at a principled circle in the regime and at the values of the Imam Khomeini... that will only increase society's loathing of him."[14] On April 12, the editor of Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, called Rafsanjani a serial distorter of history and rebuked him, saying that Rafsanjani's claim that it was he who first realized that the war against Iraq must end means that he thinks himself wiser than Khomeini.[15]

On May 10, 2015, Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi rejected Rafsanjani's account of his discussion with Khomeini's widow and of the Khomeini family's support of his version of events:[16] "Just because one has familial and neighborly relations and extensive access [to Khomeini] does not mean that one is authorized to interpret the Imam's words. Those [i.e. Rafsanjani] who aspire to make a fortune and enjoy life are incapable of interpreting the Imam's words, because he was a simple man who lived a simple life. Those who make efforts to give a green light to the oppressors [i.e. the U.S.] and the child murderers [i.e. Israel], and those who seek to reconcile with the arrogance [again referring to the U.S.] are unfit to interpret the Imam Khomeini's message, because the Imam always supported the fight against oppression and bullying and was fully opposed to the arrogance, and every cell in his body shouted 'Death to America.' [Only] those who fully support the jurisprudent ruler [Khamenei] - who is very like the Imam [Khomeini] - can interpret the Imam's words. The nation pays no attention to anyone trying to please the oppressive America, the Al-Saud [regime], the criminals, and the child-murdering Zionist regime; it obeys the rule of the jurisprudent."[17]

Rafsanjani Cites Khamenei's 1990 Statements On Close Rafsanjani-Khomeini Relationship

In response to the criticism from the ideological camp, on April 15, 2015 Rafsanjani's office published excerpts from a June 5, 1990 speech by Khamenei marking the first anniversary of Khomeini's death and of his own tenure as his heir. In the speech, Khamenei said that no statements by Rafsanjani must be questioned because of his close relationship with Khomeini: "Rafsanjani is a man whom the Imam [Khomeini] trusted completely during the [Islamic] Revolution, before the Revolution, and especially after the Revolution - to the day he died. [Khomeini] trusted him [Rafsanjani] so much, and Rafsanjani was so close to him, that [Rafsanjani] heard [Khomeini's] words more than anyone else, and heard the Imam's musings more than anyone else. Now, there are some who say what they say, but they do not know at all what Khomeini said in his heart.

"Such a man now heads our affairs. I am aware of matters, and I see what happens in the realm. I am not someone who is disconnected. I have sensed the situation in the country from up close. I have eight years' experience [as president]. Even before that, from the onset of the Revolution, I was in the Council of the Islamic Revolution [a body formed by Khomeini's associates early in the Revolution] and other places. Is it conceivable that today anyone [i.e. those critical of Rafsanjani] - even in his mind, let alone in actuality - is deviating from the direction and the framework of the Revolution that was laid out, that now some sanctimonious people are [by criticizing him] disrupting the opinion of the people?..."[18]

Ideological Circles Escalate Allegations Against Rafsanjani And His Son

In mid-March 2015, the website Mizan, which is associated with the Iranian judiciary, published a report alleging that Rafsanjani had offered unprecedented support to "financially corrupt" people - his associate former Tehran mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi and Mojahedin-e Enghelab-e Eslami reformist party activist Behzad Nabavi. The report was removed from the website shortly thereafter, but highlights from it were republished on the Digarban website.[19]

In addition, the judiciary stated, on March 15, 2015, that Rafsanjani's son Mehdi Hashemi had been sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined, on charges of damaging security and economic corruption.[20] On April 4, Mehdi Hashemi appealed the ruling, and his case was appealed.[21]

Ideological Camp Welcomes Rafsanjani Election Loss: He Paid For His Non-Revolutionary Positions

In a March 12, 2015 speech to the Assembly of Experts, Khamenei welcomed the election results: "The results of the selection of the new Assembly of Experts head is worthy and fitting... The elections were held honorably and involved no marginal issues; they can serve as a model for other [regime] bodies."[22]

* Y. Mansharof and E. Kharrazi are Research Fellows at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iran Media Project at MEMRI.


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

[3] The March 2015 interim elections were prompted by the death of Assembly of Experts head Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani the previous October. The Assembly is a senior leadership body with the authority to choose the Supreme Leader and oversee his functioning; it is constitutionally authorized to remove him if in its view he is unable to function as leader, whether due to illness, failure to adhere to Islamic law, or any other reason. Its 86 clerics are directly elected by the people to eight-year terms. Candidates for the leadership of the Assembly are vetted by the Guardian Council, which is controlled by the ideological camp and headed by Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati; this council convenes privately biannually, and regime officials keep it up-to-date on important affairs of state.

[4] On March 7, 2015, Bahar News, which is affiliated with the pragmatic camp, reported: "There is a consensus forming regarding Hashemi Rafsanjani's leadership." The websites cited Rafsanjani associates saying that "several members of the Assembly of Experts" had given Rafsanjani "a secret letter asking him to run for head [of the assembly].", March 7, 2015. A lecturer at the religious seminaries in Qom, Fazel Meabadi of the pragmatic camp, confirmed the report and said: "I spoke with a member of the Assembly of Experts in Qom who confirmed the existence [of the letter] and said that some 40 members wish Rafsanjani to run, and that they would vote for him." Aftab (Iran), March 7, 2015.

[5] In addition, Khamenei associates Ayatollahs Hashemi Shahroudi and Mohammad Ali Movahhedi-Kermani were elected as deputy heads of the assembly. Tasnim (Iran), March 10, 2015.

[6] See Ahmad Khatami in Tasnim (Iran), April 16, 2015.

[7] Likely Hassan Afrashtehpour, recently arrested by the IRGC on suspicion of involvement in the smuggling of goods and funds along with members of the Rafsanjani family., March 6, 2015.

[8] Vatan-e-Emrooz (Iran), March 11, 2015.

[9] Tasnim (Iran), March 12, 2015.

[10] Shargh (Iran), March 11, 2015.

[11] Shargh (Iran), March 11, 2015.

[12] Asr-e Iran (Iran), March 12, 2015.

[13] Entekhab (Iran), April 12, 2015; Al-Borz (Iran), April 14, 2015.

[14] Tasnim (Iran), April 13, 2015.

[15] Kayhan (Iran), April 12, 2015.

[16] For the Khomeini family's support of Rafsanjani's story, see Entekhab (Iran), April 17, 2015.

[17] Tasnim (Iran), May 10, 2015.

[18], April 15, 2015.

[19] Digarban (Iran), March 15, 2015.

[20] Tasnim (Iran), March 15, 2015.

[21] Tasnim (Iran), April 4, 2015.

[22], March 12, 2015.

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