Rafsanjani's Gambit

by Djavad Salehi-Isfahani | published February 15, 2000

On February 18, Iranians will go to the ballot box for another crucial event, this time to elect the sixth Parliament (majlis) of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The elections have raised considerable excitement in Iran because President Muhammad Khatami's forces may gain control of the Majlis, which would enable him to implement his promises for the supremacy of the rule of law and a kinder and gentler Islamic Republic. Although the law prohibits candidates from campaigning until a week before the election (February 10), Iran's lively newspapers are filled with campaign material, much of it discussing the candidacy of the former Majlis speaker and president Hashemi Rafsanjani.

If nothing else, the elections have already helped broaden the role of politics in governance. Political alliances in Iran are formed more on common enemies and less on common visions and programs for the future. In this election political forces are quite evident and much work has gone into forming "election lists," which identify candidates and the political groups that support them. The "Islamic left" groups, for example, have joined forces in a broad front called the Mosharekat Front, literally "participation front," which last week successfully negotiated with Rafsanjani's center forces, organized under the name of the Kargozaran Party, for common names on their lists. There is also greater emphasis by political groups on getting their programs out to the people, and reliance on media, basically newspapers, to communicate them to the public.

No event has accentuated political development in Iran, that is, change from private alliances to public discourse, more than has Rafsanjani's entry into the election fray as a candidate from Tehran. As Iran's most influential politician of the post revolutionary era, Ayatollah Khomeini's representative in the Supreme War Council, the powerful leader of the Majlis during the war with Iraq, president for most of the post-war era (1989-97) and the president of the powerful Expediency Council since 1997, Rafsanjani is the behind-the-scene master of political deals. Having entered the fray, he now finds his dense political report card under serious scrutiny. The left has accused him of responsibility for prolonging the war beyond the necessary defense of Iran (and against Khomeini's wishes) and of the terrorist activities inside and outside of Iran by a gang of right-wing operatives in the Ministry of Information, whose leader committed suicide only after Khatami's government uncovered them.

Despite such criticism, Rafsanjani is nonetheless a heavy favorite to win the election. Yet, support for him may fall short of making him the most popular representative from Tehran, something he desperately needs in order to firm up his claim to the Majlisâ leadership. To win big, he needs the support of his political machine, the Kargozaran Party, and unrestricted access to the media, both of which he now has. Late last month he engineered the release of his long-time political ally and the founder of Kargozaran, the popular former Tehran mayor Gholamreza Karbaschi, whose two-year sentence and heavy fine were commuted by Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani has been unusually visible in Friday prayers and through media interviews. (Iran has a very restrictive campaign law under which, in addition to barring candidates from campaigning until a week before election, allows for the use of only two kinds of posters).

How President Khatami feels about Rafsanjani's candidacy is anyone's guess, though publicly he has welcomed it. Khatami's style of popular leadership and his call for equality of all citizens under the law is at odds with Rafsanjani's style, which is to manipulate the law and rely more heavily on behind-the-scene maneuvers. Where the interests of the two men converge is in facing up to their common hard-line conservative opposition and in assuring the implementation of their common agenda (economic reform and rapprochement with the west). Only two and a half years ago Rafsanjani and his proteges in the Kargozaran Party, played a key role in Khatami's victory in the presidential elections over the conservative candidate favored by the conservative establishment. Several of Khatamiâs key cabinet officials are founding members of Kargozaran, who continue to have strong allegiance to Rafsanjani, including his minister of culture, Mr. Ataollah Mohajerani, who was responsible for frustrating the muzzling hand of the revolutionary court by liberally re-issuing revoked press licenses, the Central Bank Governor, Mr. Mohsen Nourbakhsh, and the top policymakers in the Planning and Budget Organization. Khatami himself does not lead a particular party, but he stands to lose if the left-center alliance that brought him to power breaks up. The more extreme of Khatami's leftist supporters view Rafsanjani as a candidate of the right and have therefore refused to endorse him. The right has tried hard to drive a wedge between Khatami and Rafsanjani and, judging by the harsh exchanges in the press between the two camps of supporters, to some extent has succeeded.

Khatami's leftist supporters are so certain of their victory in the Majlis elections that they see no need for an alliance with Rafsanjani. But Khatami is not content with merely having a majority in the sixth Majlis. He also needs a legislature which passes bills that can survive the veto of the Guardian Council (a body of conservative clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader with the power to send back to the Majlis any legislation it deems "unislamic"). To achieve this he not only needs a powerful leader for the Majlis, but one who can work with the Guardian Council. Mr. Rafsanjani seems to be just such a person. In case of a standoff between the Majlis and the Guardian Council, the Council of Expediency will have the final say. The Council of Expediency was created by Ayatollah Khomeini to arbitrate between the two bodies. Rafsanjani, who now heads and hopes to maintain his hold on the Expediency Council even after the election, is in a position to help. In addition, Rafsanjani's close relation with the Supreme Leader and his abilities as a power broker, may convince Khatami that he should lead the sixth Majlis.

President Khatami is still the most popular politician in Iran, not so much because of the policies he has put in place but for his standing firm on the need for reform. His lack of success, thus far, has been blamed on an uncooperative Majlis dominated by conservative representatives. With the election of a more sympathetic Majlis, his supporters are bound to become less patient and demand more reforms. While it is expected that the sixth Majlis will be sympathetic to Khatami, provided fair and free elections, it is unlikely that without effective leadership, the sixth Majlis will affect real change through legislation. Instead, it may become an elevated platform, which, together with the press, will offer reformers a forum to voice their views and criticisms.

The need for economic reform is a case in point. Legislation for Khatami's Third Five-year Development Plan was passed by the fifth Majlis, but only after it was emasculated. A new Majlis could change that. Indeed, a compromise has allowed Khatami's government to delay the approval process for the 2000-2001 budget of this Plan until the new Majlis convenes. Just in the past two years, the Majlis has passed legislation that increases the Guardian Councilâs power to approve candidates for election and to limit press freedoms. The so-called "Doe Khordad" movement (a reference to Khatami's landslide election on 12th of June 1997), which stands behind President Khatami, is divided on economic policy. Some of the leftist members of this coalition yearn for a return to the state-dominated economy of the 1980s that Rafsanjani tried to dismantle during his years as president. Khatami, under the influence of his Kargozaran ministers, seems intent on continuing to reform the system of subsidies and push for privatization. A Majlis dominated by such supporters may not be exactly what he hopes for after the election.

Mr. Rafsanjani hinted recently that his gambit was in part a response to pressure from the Supreme Leader, whose backing of Ayatollah Nategh Nouri, the defeated candidate in the 1997 presidential elections, had taught him a bitter lesson. It appears that Ayatollah Khamenei wants Mr. Rafsanjani to manage the tension that for the last few years has been tearing the Islamic revolutionaries apart. This is consistent with his posture of backing the reformist Khatami while at the same time pursuing a hard-line policy in both foreign affairs and domestic social policy. The conservatives are no longer able to serve the Supreme Leader well in the new open politics of the Khatami era.

In the aftermath of the last presidential election, many analysts interpreted the overwhelming voter support for Khatami as rejection of the conservative clergy in general and the Supreme Leader in particular. Perhaps this is one reason why the rightist coalition is not as active in this campaign as before (significantly, the conservative Society for the Combatant Clergy decided not to present its own list of candidates) and Ayatollah Khamenei has called on his old ally Rafsanjani to step in. Also, the Guardian Council appears not to have been as heavy handed in rejecting the candidates for the sixth Majlis as it could have been. Although many popular candidates with excellent revolutionary credentials have been prevented from running for office because of their political views, enough Khatami supporters and independents will run to make possible the election of a radically different Majlis.

The majority of the voting population in Iran is young and lacks both a direct recollection of life before the Islamic Republic, and a memory of the bitter war with Iraq. Their desire for greater social freedom is not swayed by the constant barrage of warnings of the return of the Great Satan. They were clearly unaffected by a statement made last week by the powerful Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi who warned that a former (unnamed) director of the CIA had arrived in Tehran with a suitcase of dollars which he distributed to the pro-Khatami press (a clear reference to the role of Kermit Roosevelt in the 1953 CIA sponsored coup that overthrew premier Mossadegh). Nor are they moved by the continuing eulogies seen on television for newly discovered remains retrieved from the western war front that have been brought for burial in Iran's towns and cities.

While Khatami's forces appear confident of their victory in the coming election, they voice fears that too much pressure for reform may create a backlash from the hard-line conservative clergy that still controls the most critical levers of power, mainly the judiciary and the armed forces. Against the bright horizon of the reformers' impending victory, a dark shadow has been cast by the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards who have repeatedly threatened to intervene if they think the Republic is in danger; and by the shadowy forces that are yet to be brought to justice for their role in the killing of writers and opposition politicians two years ago. In the delicate circumstances in which the reform movement of Iran finds itself, Mr. Rafsanjani, the astute power broker, whom an unfriendly commentator recently called Iran's Richelieu, may prove helpful.

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