AFP: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who called on Friday for the release of hundreds of people arrested during massive opposition protests last month, is a key politician in post-Islamic revolution Iran.
By Hiedeh Farmani
TEHRAN (AFP) — Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who called on Friday for the release of hundreds of people arrested during massive opposition protests last month, is a key politician in post-Islamic revolution Iran.
His view that the disputed presidential vote broke the trust of Iranians carries weight because of his position as a powerful insider.
Rafsanjani's influence had already made him the target of mudslinging by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ahead of the incumbent's controversial re-election in the June 12 ballot.
The pragmatic cleric — himself a two-term former president — spoke at Tehran University during weekly prayers, leading the service for the first time since the election in which he firmly backed Ahmadinejad's main challenger, former prime minster Mir Hossein Mousavi.
"Our key issue is to return the trust which the people had and now to some extent is broken," Rafsanjani told the congregation. "It is not necessary that in this situation people be jailed. Let them join their families."
Mousavi blamed his ballot box defeat to Ahmadinejad on massive vote rigging and has called for a re-run despite his rival's landslide victory being upheld by the electoral watchdog.
Rafsanjani was Iran's president between 1989 to 1997 and the one-time conservative has edged closer to the reform camp since his own humiliating defeat to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential poll.
He had previously kept a low profile as street unrest erupted after last month's vote but his role in two key institutions in the Islamic republic gives him room for manoeuvre behind the scenes as a potential kingmaker.
The 75-year-old heads both the top political arbitration body called the Expediency Council and also the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body which chooses and supervises the supreme leader and can theoretically replace him.
Although the source of the Rafsanjani family's wealth has long been an issue of speculation, many jaws dropped when Ahmadinejad openly accused the Rafsanjanis of corruption on prime time television as he sought to bolster his own image as a man of the people.
In a controversial and widely viewed TV debate with Mousavi during the campaign, Ahmadinejad also accused Rafsanjani of orchestrating opposition to his government.
His sons threatened to sue the president and Rafsanjani responded by writing an open letter to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a backer of the hardline Ahmadinejad.
He also urged his "revolutionary companion" Khamenei to ensure the election was clean.
Khamenei did not respond but he did defend Rafsanjani in an address on June 19 during Iran's worst crisis in the 30 years since the 1979 revolution as massive protests broke out against Ahmadinejad's claimed victory.
Several senior clerics slammed the violence used by security forces against protesters, and the Assembly of Experts, while hailing the high turnout in the election, made no mention of Ahmadinejad in its post-vote statement.
Rafsanjani's son Mehdi and daughter Faezeh have reportedly been barred from leaving the country over their alleged role in inciting "riots," and his outspoken daughter was briefly detained along with other family members.
Rafsanjani has been critical of the foreign and economic policies of Ahmadinejad, who is accused by rival reformists and also by many fellow conservatives of stoking inflation and isolating Iran internationally.
Rafsanjani pulled out all the stops to ensure reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami succeeded him by defeating a conservative rival in the 1997 presidential election, but his relationship with the reformists then soured.
They campaigned against the pistachio farmer's son, and he was able to win a seat in the 2000 parliamentary election only by the narrowest of margins.
Rafsanjani's presidency, a breathing space after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war and the death in 1989 of revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was marked by reconstruction and cautious reform.
But it was also marred by human rights violations, rampant inflation and difficult relations with Europe, not least with Britain after the "death sentence" handed down to writer Salman Rushdie by Khomeini.
Rafsanjani has impeccable revolutionary credentials: he studied theology in the Shiite clerical nerve centre of Qom, was frequently arrested by the shah's secret police and also became an early follower of Khomeini.
However Rafsanjani also caused a stir in 2007 by saying in his memoirs that Khomeini had wanted to drop the iconic Islamic republic mantra of "Death to America."