Bloomberg: In 1989, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the most powerful figure in Iran, supported Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s appointment as supreme spiritual leader.
By Henry Meyer
June 19 (Bloomberg) — In 1989, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then the most powerful figure in Iran, supported Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s appointment as supreme spiritual leader.
Now, the two men are locked in conflict amid a wave of protests against the June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Khamenei ally. Rafsanjani supports Mir Hossein Mousavi, who says that he won the vote and has drawn hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets to rally behind him.
Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are the public faces of a power struggle among Iran’s ruling clerics. As the country is swept up in protests not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the conflict risks undermining the regime’s existence, said Mohammad-Reza Djalili, an Iran expert at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
“The divisions within the ruling elite in Iran are making it very hard for the authorities to crack down decisively,” Djalili said. The regime “is going through its biggest crisis in 30 years. The divisions are getting deeper and deeper.”
Rafsanjani’s support legitimizes Mousavi’s fight against the regime, broadening his base and making it harder for the government to respond, said Cliff Kupchan, a senior analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group.
“Rafsanjani is extremely influential,” he said. “That is providing a degree of protection to the opposition.”
The internal struggle makes it more difficult for U.S. President Barack Obama as he decides how to respond to the continuing protests. Obama, who has made it a strategic priority to engage Iran to ensure it won’t build nuclear weapons, said on June 16 that the U.S. won’t meddle in internal Iranian politics.
The Obama administration must “make policy keeping in mind several scenarios,” said Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
The factional split pits Rafsanjani, 75, a former president who heads the 86-member Assembly of Experts, which has the power to dismiss the supreme leader, against Khamenei, 69. The spiritual leader, who will address Iran in prayers today, commands loyalty among the security forces including the elite Revolutionary Guards and its volunteer militia, the Basij, said Ali Pedram, an Iran expert at Durham University in the U.K.
The current system includes a presidency subordinate to the supreme leader and an elected parliament that is overseen by a clerical body. The shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, was ousted in 1979 after months of anti-monarchy demonstrations.
“The political contest playing out in the election is, in fact, among rival factions of the same regime,” said Trita Parsi, an Iran scholar and head of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council, the largest U.S.-Iranian association. Ahmadinejad represents a view that “the established political class has hijacked the revolution,” Parsi said.
Rafsanjani, imprisoned and tortured by the shah’s secret police, was an associate of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution.
Khomeini died in 1989 and Khamenei replaced him with the aid of an endorsement from Rafsanjani, who later that year became president. Rafsanjani remained the key figure in Iranian politics for at least four years because Khamenei lacked authority, Pedram said.
After 1993, Khamenei built up his own power base in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij and other security structures by cultivating younger politicians who had served in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war.
Rafsanjani was defeated in 2005 presidential elections by Ahmadinejad, 52, a former mayor of Tehran who promised to redistribute oil wealth to the people.
During this year’s presidential campaign, Khamenei and Rafsanjani took pot shots at each other, either directly or through Mousavi, 67, and Ahmadinejad. The president complained in a televised debate on June 3 that Rafsanjani was spearheading Mousavi’s campaign and accused the former president’s family of corruption.
Rafsanjani sent back an open letter to the supreme leader denouncing Ahmadinejad’s “lies.” He called for a “fraudless” election.
Khamenei endorsed Ahmadinejad’s re-election on June 13, calling it a “glittering event.” Amid escalating protests, Khamenei two days later ordered the top clerical body to investigate irregularities, and then requested a partial recount. Mousavi rejected those moves and is demanding new elections.
Allies of Rafsanjani and Mousavi include former president Mohammed Khatami, 65, who sought to promote social and political freedoms during his 1997-2005 administration.
Three senior religious figures in the holy city of Qom, the center of Islamic learning in Iran, have publicly supported Mousavi, a sign that Rafsanjani is rallying support against the supreme leader, Pedram said. They are Ayatollah Asadollah Bayat Zanjani, Ayatollah Yosuf Sanei and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri.
In what may be another sign of tensions within the ruling elite, Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani on June 15 said he held Interior Minister Sadegh Mahsouli accountable for attacks on civilians and university students in Tehran in recent days.
As many as 15 people have been killed, including eight protesters who died when security forces opened fire on a June 15 rally in Tehran.
The rift “must now be unbridgeable,” said Richard Dalton, a former U.K. ambassador to Iran who is now an analyst for Chatham House, a London-based research group. “The ruling groups have never been so fractured.”
— Editors: Anne Swardson, Peter Hirschberg