April 8, 2014 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1082

The Struggle Between Khamenei And Rafsanjani Over The Iranian Leadership – Part IX: Rafsanjani Assumes Leadership Role On Behalf Of The People; Khamenei Defends His Credentials as Ayatollah Khomeini's Successor

April 8, 2014 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1082


The ideological – and personal – struggle in Iran between Expediency Council head Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is continuing. The two are battling each other for personal prestige as well as over the direction the country should take.

In a March 20, 2014 Persian New Year (Norooz) interview with the Iranian daily Shargh, Rafsanjani focused on his complex relationship with Khamenei as well as on the chain of events that had led him to declare his presidential candidacy at the last moment for the June 2013 election and his subsequent disqualification by the Guardian Council.[1] He spoke from the point of view of someone tasked with preserving the public's interest, and as one compelled to use all his political influence to shore up Iran's crumbling society and economy; he also hinted that he and his associate Hassan Rohani, who was ultimately elected president, had, prior to the election, had acted in a coordinated move in order to get Rohani elected. Rafsanjani stressed that it is he who is behind, and who guides, the main political moves in the country, and, in a continuation of his criticism of Khamenei's ideological rigidity, claimed that while he himself adheres to the principles of the regime and is determined to actualize them, he seeks to do so in a pragmatic policy that meets the needs of the current time.[2]

As Rafsanjani claims that his status in Iranian public life has grown stronger, and routinely stresses that he is the spokesman of the people, his rival Khamenei is fighting an image of incompetence and of having been merely a bit player in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war – an image of Khamenei that Rafsanjani has promoted in recent months in various statements. The path that Khamenei is struggling to implement for the country includes a stricter adherence to the values and ideology of the Islamic Revolution, without concessions to pragmatism. Khamenei is hinting that Rafsanjani, with his pragmatic approach, is attempting to undermine Khamenei's image as well as his path, and that this is distorting the legacy of the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – a legacy that Khamenei insists is based on strict adherence to the goal and hostility towards the U.S. This, Khamenei says, is a legacy that positions Khamenei himself, the Supreme Leader, as head of the country.

Another volley in the Rafsanjani-Khamenei conflict is the blatant attacks on Rafsanjani by officials belonging to the ideological stream who are close to Khamenei. Basij commander Ali Reza Naqdi said, hinting at Rafsanjani, that some who rely on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's praise of them in the past have abandoned Khomeini's principles, and Abulghassem Alizadeh, political deputy head of the Council for Policy of Friday Prayer Leaders, condemned Rafsanjani's "liberal policies" and claimed that they were contrary to Khomeini's philosophy and Khamenei's policy.

Further underlining this dispute, a group associated with Khamenei is claiming that a March 24, 2014 speech that Rafsanjani gave in Kish was cut short by disruptions that were due widespread popular protests against his wrongheaded policies, including allegations that he is corrupt. The group also claimed that this had happened in other cities as well where Rafsanjani had gone to give speeches. On the other hand, Rafsanjani supporters are claiming that the disruptions were carried out by supporters of former president Ahmadinejad, and that they had completely prevented Rafsanjani from beginning the speech at all.

This paper will examine the latest developments in the power struggle between Rafsanjani and Khamenei.

Rafsanjani In Interview: Regime Security Source Warned Guardian Council That My Popularity Would Reach 90% Within Days – So I Was Disqualified

I Tried Repeatedly To Contact Khamenei To Ask Him For His Consent To My Candidacy But Could Not Reach Him – He Was "Giving A [Religious] Lesson Or In A Meeting, And At Noon He Went To Rest"; Khamenei's Staff Member "Woke Him Up... [And Khamenei] Said, 'I Cannot Discuss These Matters On The Phone'"

Following are the main points of Rafsanjani's March 20, 2014 Norooz interview:[3]

"Question: Mr. Rafsanjani, it seems that you are better off these days than in the past four, or even eight, years [i.e. Ahmadinejad's two presidential terms] You give more speeches and also smile more.

"Answer: ... I agree that the atmosphere now is better. In the past I really was worried. I saw the atmosphere before the 2005 [presidential] elections [won by Ahmadinejad], especially during the preceding year, when the [Iranian] Broadcasting Authority criticized all the achievements of the [Islamic] Revolution on the pretext of supporting that circle [a reference to the conservative circles at that time, which were led by Ahmadinejad]... I assessed what the country's situation would be, and as time passed... I felt that my concern was justified. My concern reached a peak. Now a new path has begun [with Rohani's election], and, with God's help, hope is keeping our society alive.

"Question: So you agree that you are better off now?

"Answer: As you can see, slightly better off, [but] many things remain to be resolved before things will be [truly] better."

Rafsanjani and Rohani during the Iran-Iraq war (Source:

"Question: Why did you decide to run for election? You had eight years of experience in government [as president 1989-1997]. Why did you decide to run again, in contentious presidential elections?

"Answer: In both my [previous presidential] campaigns [i.e. in 1989 and 1993], I ran primarily because the people insisted; for six months, they repeatedly demanded [that I run]. Every day two or three groups [of people] would come to my office [to try to persuade me to run] – both recently and back then. In this situation, a man faces a real question – if there is a chance that you can make a difference, why not run? All these people say this, so they cannot be wrong. We cannot think that we know everything. Ultimately, the people realized this, so we should act according [to the people's demands]. Up to that point, I had refused, and also I was not convinced [that I should run], but I did feel that the elections atmosphere was very cold [i.e. stagnant] and that my participation would at the very least benefit the elections. I felt that under those circumstances, when we were under external threat [of attack on Iran], my participation as a passive shield could be helpful, and the people would be represented as well.

"So on that Saturday night, which was the last day to register, I made a final decision [to run]. But this depended on my seeing what Khamenei's opinion was, and obtaining his consent. At the last minute, I was able to reach him by phone and tell [him] some words.

"Question: So at the last minute you were contacted by the Leader's office?

"Answer: No, I contacted [him]. That night, when I decided to run, I wanted to contact [Khamenei] but I could not reach him. The next morning, when I got to my office, I asked that he be contacted at his office. [But] he was giving a [religious] lesson or in a meeting, and at noon he went to rest. Later that afternoon, [Asghar] Hejazi [an official at Khamenei's office] called and said, 'He is still sleeping, what do you want me to do?' I said: 'I want to go to the Interior Ministry, [otherwise] I will miss my chance [to register].' He said: 'Do you want me to wake him up?' I said yes. He woke him up and said '[This guy] wants to register and is waiting for your opinion.' [Khamenei] said, 'I cannot discuss these matters on the phone.'

"Question: So he implicitly agreed?

"Answer: By saying this, he agreed, because if he didn't want [me to run] he would have said that he had no interest in it. I also did not want to make him responsible [for me running]. [All I] wanted was to see that he had no objection.

"Question: So you didn't manage to speak with the Leader until the day before you registered?

"Answer: I spoke [with him] before that about the elections, several times, and said I would not run. But after paying attention to the situation, I changed my mind. I wanted to tell him first, but somehow it didn't happen on that day. I guess that was how God wanted it."

Rafsanjani in interview (Shargh, Iran, March 20, 2014)

A Regime Security Source Warned Guardian Council: "The Votes For [Rafsanjani] Are Swiftly Rising... They Reached 70%... In Another Two Days They Will Reach 90%... If He Is Approved To Run [By This Council], All Our Plans From These Years Will Be Ruined"

"Question: Did you think you would be disqualified?

"Answer: (laughs) I thought it was unlikely. But I slowly realized [that] it was [a] serious [possibility].

"Question: Prior to the public announcement [of your disqualification], you were undoubtedly told that you might be disqualified. Did anyone ask or recommend that you withdraw before your disqualification became public knowledge?

"Answer: Both these things happened. In the final two or three days, Guardian Council members told me that a senior security official and his deputies had come [to the council meeting] and, after strongly insisting, they were allowed in. Other [council] members objected, and said that 'outsiders are not supposed to attend the meeting because we are discussing the elections.' Some suggested that only the official stay and the rest leave. He stayed, and said, 'I want to tell you that from the first day that Rafsanjani [announced his candidacy], we have been conducting opinion polls every morning and every evening. The votes for him are swiftly rising, and by last night they reached 70%. In another two days, they will reach 90%. If he [is approved to run by this council], all our plans from these years will be ruined.' In light of his words, they decided what to do [i.e. to disqualify me].

"Question: This issue played out behind the scenes, but the faction that opposes [you] said in the media that you had announced that you would not run because you knew that while you would be approved, the people would say 'no' to you, and [Mohammad]Khatami would not run because he knew he would be disqualified. The editorial in [the daily] Kayhan [also] claimed that you were not [running] because you were afraid of hearing 'no' from the people. How did you see this atmosphere following this incitement [by your opponents] leading up to election day?

"Answer: I had no doubt that if I [ran], I would win. I had doubts about whether they would permit things to progress naturally at the various stages, but I did my job and my being approved [by the Guardian Council] would have been enough. Of course, I did my duty and did not say no to the demand of the people – and this was very important. When they [i.e. my opponents] started dealing with this, and such talk began, I said, 'We will do our part, and they will do their part. I did nothing that would disqualify me.

"On the eve of the day when they wanted to announce my disqualification, the Guardian Council called Rohani and said: 'We have decided that this guy will not run for election. Go tell him to withdraw his candidacy so that we don't treat him disrespectfully [by disqualifying him]. We've also told [Majlis speaker and close ally of both Rafsanjani and Khamenei] Ali Larijani, and he will go speak with Rafsanjani tomorrow.'

"Rohani did not tell me whether to withdraw or not, but only delivered what they had said. He said: 'I asked them what will happen with the people, those people who were so encouraged [by your decision to run], and who raised a ruckus throughout the country. This is dangerous.' They said: 'We must solve the problem another way.' Rohani asked me: 'What are you going to do?' I said: 'I won't withdraw, why should I? If I do, what will the people say? What answer can I give them? Do I tell them the Guardian Council [was to blame]? It would be as if I had been disqualified. The people were encouraged by my candidacy, why should I pour water on the flames rising from the people's sentiment?' [Rohani] did not want me to withdraw and did not insist that I do so, but only passed the [Guardian Council's] message on to me.

"The next morning, Ali Larijani arrived at my office and we paced the floor and talked. He explained the issue to me at length and asked: 'What will you do now? You are expected to withdraw so as not to cause problems for the country.' I said: 'If I withdraw, more problems will crop up. And what do I tell the people? The people will be against us all. We have led the people to this point, as they have shown [in the elections]. Thus far, we have many reports from towns where people have established [campaign] headquarters [for me] and begun operations. What do I tell those people? I don't agree to this.'

"[Larijani] said: 'If Khamenei tells you [to withdraw] will you still refuse?' I said: 'If he orders me to – I will withdraw. It is his right to order me [to do so] and I will accept it. But if he is pleased with this path [of the Guardian Council], then I have nothing to say.' He said: 'There are compensations for this move [dropping out].' I said: 'I agree with you, but I do not recommend that Khamenei do this. However, if he has concluded that I should not run, there is undoubtedly an interest that obliges [me not to run].'...

"Question: How important do you think your disqualification was? Was your position strengthened or weakened by it? What role did it play in your political future?

"Answer: Of course [my disqualification] strengthens the role of the people, and perhaps people from various sectors of society will be embittered. I did not [announce my candidacy] based on my own wishes. The insistence of various segments of the population demanded that I register, even though I had already decided not to. The disqualification was not a personal [attack] on me.

"Question: In any case, how did you feel about your disqualification?

"Answer: When it happened, it had an historic and positive impact.

"Question: You were satisfied by this move?

"Answer: It was generally positive, but I wish it had not happened...

"Question: After your disqualification, there was a unique atmosphere in society. You could have responded in one of three ways – with anger; by being passive – though that was unlikely; or [by continuing] the same activities you were doing during [the 2013 presidential elections]. After what happened [i.e. your disqualification] it seemed at first that no candidate could win the people's vote. How did you decide to remain active, without anger or passivity, but rather by taking an active part in the elections and in [encouraging] the people's participation [i.e. to go out to vote]?

"Answer: When [Hassan] Rohani came and told me what [the Guardian Council] had asked of him and what they had told him, he offered to withdraw as well. But I said: 'You must stay [in the race] precisely for this reason, so that if there is a problem with my candidacy, then you will run.'

"Question: When you registered, we read in the news that Rohani consulted you regarding his decisions in the campaign.

"Answer: Yes, I knew the options and the situation. So I said to him: 'You stay [in the race].' Rohani said: 'There is no longer any purpose to me running.' [But] I said: 'You must stay, so that if I am not [a candidate], you will be.'

"Question: Can we conclude that you had a plan?

"Answer: No, this happened then and there. We had no plans at that time. I naturally insisted that Nategh[-Nouri, an conservative official in Khamenei's office] run, but he declined. Then I went to Rohani and he agreed. In that time period, before I registered [as a candidate], I assisted him...

"Question: ...These elections were a good teamwork experience. Are you determined to continue this in the future, in election campaigns or other political challenges?

"Answer: In any circumstances, when someone wants to carry out such a grand mission, he needs to cooperate with others...

"Question: ...Have you changed [since the beginning of the revolution], or has society's view changed? Especially when we are seeing from you very different positions.

"Answer: ...There are two important issues for me. The first is the question of the [Islamic] Revolution's principles and goals, for which I fought from day one and even before that. These were my ideals from the start – I joined [the revolution] while preserving them, and I still believe in the same principles today, and I want it to stay that way. Adherence to principles has not changed for me. However, under the current circumstances no one can say that 10 years down the road [things] will be the same. Each era has different necessities, and we must take heed of this.

"Question: Can you illustrate this difference?

"Answer: For example, the situation eight years ago [when Ahmadinejad was elected president], which I did not accept. I saw these past eight years as a deviant path...

"Question: It has been claimed that Rafsanjani once spoke more on behalf of the ruler, and that recently he has spoken more on behalf of the people.

"Answer: I see no change in my positions. It all depends on the needs of the hour. Whoever says this thought that for the past eight years the regime belonged to him [alone]... During those years, I spoke based on my longstanding relationship with Khamenei, [as part of which] I used to discuss all issues [with him]. [He and I] each know what the other thinks. I opposed the government in power [i.e. the Ahmadinejad government] and could not support its actions. Because I did not support [this government], they said I was taking the side of the people. Apparently, they knew they [a hint at his critics in the ideological camp] were acting against the people. The opinion of the people has been and always will be a principle for me.

"Question: What is the difference between being a former president during Ahmadinejad's term [and now during] Rohani's term?

"Answer: Both eras had tranquility as well as worry... [Under] the previous government, I was worried about harm coming to the revolution, the country, Islam, the Hidden Imam, the Leader, and the holy tenets of the faith. I was deeply concerned. But under those conditions there was nothing I could do. In the current situation, I am concerned about continuing to take care of the people's problems [via the Rohani government]..."

Khamenei And His Officials Respond To Rafsanjani's Accusations, As Supporters Of His Camp Disrupt Rafsanjani's Conferences

"Those Who Wish Evil... And Others Aspire To Make People Forget... The People Who Played Key Roles In [The Iran-Iraq War]"

In a March 26, 2014 speech, Supreme Leader Khamenei spoke out against statements downplaying his contribution as a leader during the Iran-Iraq war, hinting at Rafsanjani. He also claimed that those making these statements were distorting the ideology and legacy of the founder of Iran's Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini:

"Those who wish evil upon the Iranian nation, and several other [elements], aspire to make people forget the sacrifice during [the Iran-Iraq] war and the people who played key roles in it. Therefore, they attempt to distort the sacrifices made during the Iran-Iraq war, and the path set out by Imam [Khomeini]. Every moment of every incident of that war will never be forgotten by the Iranian nation, and every one of these moments has had a powerful impact on the path taken by the nation towards its goals."[4]

Additionally, in a speech to the Assembly of Experts on March 6, 2014, Khamenei addressed Rafsanjani's repeated calls for dialogue with the U.S. aimed at resolving the economic crisis and the nuclear issue. Implicitly taunting Rafsanjani, Khamenei said that the fundamental hostility of the enemy, i.e. the U.S., cannot be ignored, and called for continuing to demonstrate ideological hostility in talks with it.

He said: "One of the important duties of high-ranking [regime] officials is to not disregard the enemy's hostility [towards us]. So long as the Islamic regime and the Iranian nation adhere to the principles of Islam, the revolution, and independence, the enemy will not relinquish its hostility, and therefore it cannot be ignored. The arrogance front [i.e. the U.S.] has a deep-seated hatred towards the Iranian nation, the depths of which can be seen in their current statements... The American officials' verbal military threats indicate the ineffectiveness of the sanctions...

"Some people [i.e. Rafsanjani] should not think that if we surrender to the enemy, our problems will be solved. I am grateful to all the officials in the country who take a decisive stance against the enemy and explicitly state that the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution are not passive. Such clear positions vis-à-vis the enemy should dominate the discourse [with them]..."[5]

Basij Commander: Some Rely On Khomeini's Praise Of Them – But Have Abandoned Khomeini's Principles

Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naqdi attacked Rafsanjani indirectly, at an April 3 Basij conference in the city of Rasht, in northwest Iran. Hinting at Rafsanjani, he stated that some had taken advantage of the revolution to benefit from it personally, gaining wealth and senior status. Attacking Rafsanjani's call for pragmatism, for adapting the revolution to the zeitgeist, and for stopping the hostility vis-à-vis the U.S., he called these a mistaken interpretation that stemmed from Rafsanjani's exploitation of his close relationship with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Naqdi said: "There are those who say, 'Enough of the struggle, let's reconcile with the enemies.' How greedy these people have become since the beginning [of the Islamic Revolution], and they ousted the Shah in order to obtain for themselves an aristocratic life and power... Some [of them] say, 'If Imam [Khomeini] and the martyrs were alive today, they would call for reconciling [with the U.S.], and therefore we must interpret the Imam's words in an up-to-date way' – but everyone knows very well that the principles [of the revolution] are eternally valid... Unfortunately, there are those who rely on the praise that the Imam gave them [in the past], but they have abandoned the indisputable principles [of Khomeini and of the revolution], such as the struggle against the oppression and the arrogance [i.e. the U.S.], the simple life, asceticism, and fairness from the ruling echelons that are serving the people."[6]

Interview With Political Deputy Head For The Council For Policy Of Friday Prayer Leaders: "Rafsanjani Actually Has A Fundamental Disagreement With The Philosophy Of The Imam [Khomeini] On Several Topics, As He Does With The Leader [Khamenei]"

In a March 30, 2014 interview with the website Nasim Online, which is close to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Abulghassem Alizadeh, political deputy head for the Council for Policy of Friday Prayer Leaders, accused Rafsanjani of straying from the ideological line of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Supreme Leader Khamenei. He said:

"Rafsanjani actually has a fundamental disagreement with the philosophy of the Imam [Khomeini] on several topics, as he does with the Leader [Khamenei]. His view on political and social issues is more liberal, which is why he also analyzes them from that angle. Unfortunately, Rafsanjani does not obey national unity. He does not consider [Iran's] national interest, even though he heads the Expediency Council.

"In matters connected to the fitna of 2009 [i.e. the public protests against the election results] and the ensuing situation [in the country] – even though Khamenei explicitly spoke out against this injustice to the revolution and the nation, Rafsanjani never used the word fitna, and at various stages [even] supported the [fitna] leaders. In some statements, he even expressed hope that the leaders of the fitna would be released...

"You should also see his statements about the Internet and social issues. The issue of censorship and of blocking [websites within Iran], and of the Internet, is a serious one. We cannot be remiss [and cannot accept] the unmanageable, chaotic atmosphere that exists in cyberspace. Five daily newspapers were being published during Rafsanjani's presidency [1989-1997], two of which he insisted on shutting down because they did not think like he did. [Now] he calls [for removing] censorship, even though in the past he [supported] it. We absolutely do need oversight, and control mechanisms, that are appropriate for our national and religious culture and values, and blocking [websites] is vital and necessary. It is an injustice to leave the Islamic Republic's media outlets in foreign hands...

"The foundations of Rafsanjani's thought are wrong, and so his analysis of the previous elections, especially the elections in which he was a candidate, is clearly illogical – as is his view on political and social phenomena. The most unfortunate thing is that Rafsanjani still speaks in a way that confirms the deviancy of others [i.e. the 2009 protests], especially the oppressive claim of election fraud, even though this was repeatedly and explicitly denied by officials such as [former reformist president] Mohammad Khatami. Rafsanjani's statements on the previous elections are very surprising to us, and are unexpected coming from a figure like him...

"We must see who benefits from these statements and who does not. The enemy certainly benefits from such analysis and statements. With these statements, is Rafsanjani attempting to brag to the nation, the revolution, the Imam Khomeini, the martyrs, and Khamenei? Does a person of his status [as head] of the Expediency Council view the interests of the regime and nation in this light? In a scenario where the enemy bares its teeth to the Iranian nation and is on the hunt for statements like these from high-ranking officials like him, should Rafsanjani say such frivolous things from the official [regime] pulpits – thus providing ammunition to the enemy?

"Iran's enemies will undoubtedly use this ammunition against Iran in their media... But I believe that the validity of Rafsanjani's philosophy and positions has already expired, [because] the [Iranian] people has found its path. Our revolution is so deeply rooted, and so strong, that, with God's help, it will suffer no damage, despite [his] statements and [his] aid to the enemy."[7]

Khamenei Camp: Disruption Of Rafsanjani's Speech – A Sign Of Increasing Popular Protests Against Him

A speech that Rafsanjani was set to deliver March 24, 2014 in Kish, in the south of the country, was, according to the moderate-conservative website Asr-e Iran, which is close to the Rafsanjani camp, cancelled due to disruptions by supporters of former president Ahmadinejad. The website said that "the claims that [Rafsanjani's] speech was cut short are untrue, since protestors prevented him from even starting."[8]

However, the website Ammariyon, which is close to the Ansar-e Hizbullah group – a staunch supporter of Khamenei – reported that the disruptions of Rafsanjani's speech were part of a widespread popular protest against his adherence to a false policy, and that this opposition was not confined to Ahmadinejad's circles. The website also implied that Rafsanjani's economic corruption was another reason for the popular protest against him, stating that Rafsanjani had given the speech, that it had been cut short, and that his supporters' claims that he had never even given it at all reflected an attempt to minimize the scope of the public opposition to him:

"There were so many protestors that Rafsanjani's escorts preferred that he not finish his speech and that he leave the premises. In an attempt to manage the incident and to limit coverage of the popular protest [against him], the pro-Rafsanjani media outlets quickly published their version [of the events], and, as with other popular protests in other cities, they attempted to attribute it to the previous government's [supporters].

"However, the scope of these protests is much wider than these media outlets claim. It is Rafsanjani's ongoing bizarre positions and policies that have brought about this situation, and have increased the scope [of protests against him] – so that nearly all his visits [to give speeches across Iran] are met with popular protests...

"Rafsanjani's political policy and positions in recent years have triggered great protest by the people in cities around the country, and such protests occurred during Rafsanjani's visits to Kermanshah and Kerman [as well]. In Rafsanjan, Rafsanjani's birthplace, protestors changed the sign at the [public] square from 'Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani [Square]' to 'Imam Hussein Square.' The accusation that the Rafsanjani family is aristocratic in character is one of the important reasons for the popular protests [against him]."[9]

*A. Savyon is Director of MEMRI's Iranian Media Project; Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[3] Shargh (Iran), March 20, 2014.

[4] Mehr (Iran), March 26, 2014.

[5], March 6, 2014.

[6], April 3, 2014.

[7], March 30, 2014.

[8] Asr-e Iran (Iran), March 25, 2014.

[9], March 26, 2014.

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