September 23, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1019

The Struggle Between Khamenei And Rafsanjani Over The Iranian Leadership – Part V: Rafsanjani – Not Rohani – The Leader Of Potential Change In Iran

September 23, 2013 | By Yigal Carmon and A. Savyon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1019

Recently, the Western media have been focusing on the gestures of moderation by Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif. If these gestures represent genuine change in Iran, they are based on two developments that are not being taken into consideration or adequately recognized by the Western media and political circles:

1. The fact that the international sanctions on Iran are having an impact, and that they have brought Iran to a situation that it can no longer bear;

2. The fact that a leading role in Iranian politics in the past two years has been played by senior Iranian official Hashemi Rafsanjani. It is Rafsanjani who has openly challenged Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his policies; the newly elected president, Hassan Rohani, is merely a mouthpiece for the Rafsanjani camp.[1]

-Rafsanjani himself ran for president, but was disqualified by Khamenei because of his challenges to his policy, and even to his very leadership. Rafsanjani then backed Rohani’s candidacy, and when he won, Rafsanjani and his camp – and even his opponents, viewed it as a victory for Rafsanjani.

-Since the election, in June 2013, Rafsanjani has repeatedly and publicly challenged Khamenei, and has reiterated publicly the fact that Iran is collapsing and that there must be change – just as in 1988 when Rafsanjani, then commander of the Iranian armed forces, forced the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to realize that Iran could no longer face Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). He thus forced Khomeini to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 calling for a ceasefire.[2]

Thus, it was Rafsanjani who forced Khamenei into giving his approval for some degree of flexibility on the part of the Iranian regime vis-à-vis the West – flexibility that at this stage is purely token and involves no essential concessions on Iran's part.

Rafsanjani , who has status equal to that of Khamenei – and was even senior to him during the Khomeini era – and who personifies Iran's Islamic Revolution, is not a man of dogma. His first objective, now as in 1988, is to secure the continuation of the revolutionary regime, not to relinquish its goals. As far as Rafsanjani is concerned, moderation is a vital yet temporary tactic to save the regime so that it can continue to strive to achieve its goals in the future. He therefore uses the terms "Islamic realism," the "Treaty of Hudaybiyya," the "Peace of Imam Hassan," and the necessity of "drinking the cup of poison." [3]

The September 17 response by Khamenei and his camp to Rafsanjani's challenge, which included compliance with Rafsanjani's demand for a change of course and even for what Khamenei called "heroic flexibility" that he claimed that he has always supported, all signal that Khamenei has capitulated to Rafsanjani's leadership – even if at this point these moves are only a mere gesture towards the West. The upshot is that Rafsanjani is now Iran's real Leader today as well as the leader of a potential change.

If the West eases the sanctions on Iran without any essential concessions on Iran's part, the West will effectively have itself thwarted a genuine chance for change in Iran. The West's response to a totally non-substantive gesture on the part of Khamenei will utterly destroy the basis on which rests Rafsanjani's ability to institute change in Iran – even if such a change at this point is only a tactical and temporary measure.

* A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] Rohani's lightweight status in the Iranian domestic arena is reflected in the fact that Khamenei ignores him except for demanding that he obey him, i.e. Khamenei, and warning that if he does not he will jeopardize his position. In contrast, Khamenei and his camp are conducting a full-scale public ideological debate, in response to Rafsanjani’s historical, political, and ideological arguments. See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1018, The Struggle Between Khamenei And Rafsanjani Over The Iranian Leadership – Part IV: Rafsanjani Calls For Moderation In The Spirit Of 'Islamic Realism'; Khamenei Is Ready For 'Heroic Flexibility' By Iran But Without Compromising Revolutionary Principles, September 23, 2013.

[2] In the ideological debate over Iran’s policy, Rafsanjani not only relies on the legacy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but also on Islamic sources, i.e. the Treaty of Hudaybiyya and the Peace of Imam Hassan.

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