Possessing a popular mandate, and emboldened by the apparent support of a substantial number of senior clerics, Iran's political maverick, Aliakbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is pressing a campaign to diminish President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's influence over the country's policy-making apparatus. While the outcome is far from certain, Rafsanjani has already succeeded in recasting the terms of political discourse inside Iran, emphasizing a cautious, rather than radical approach to policy dilemmas, especially the one revolving around the country's controversial nuclear program.
The enmity between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, who have emerged as bitter rivals since the 2005 presidential election, was on full display during the February 20 opening session of the Assembly of Experts, the body responsible for oversight of Iran's Supreme Leader. The two refused to shake hands following the swearing in of the 86-member assembly, which is now dominated by Rafsanjani and his political allies following their landslide electoral victory in last December's election. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Over the last few weeks, Rafsanjani, a consummate pragmatist, has solidified his standing as the chief political alternative to the neo-conservative president. In the span of five days in early February, Rafsanjani gave two provocative television speeches and made a highly publicized visit to Qom, Iran's main spiritual center, unleashing a rhetorical offensive that threw the president off balance.
"This is the first time after the [presidential election] victory of the neo-conservatives over a year and a half ago that an individual from Iran's political class has articulated a coherent set of policy statements in direct opposition to the present government," noted a Tehran political scientist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The political scientist added that opposition to Ahmadinejad's policies had been rising, but, until now, presidential opponents lacked a figure around which they could rally. "Many people from elite circles are unhappy with the president's stand on a range of topics -- from Iran's nuclear program to his denial of the Holocaust to his economic policy. What [Rafsanjani] has done is to tap into this sense of unease and use it to rally all the disaffected factions under his own leadership."
In Qom, Rafsanjani met with many of the country's most powerful religious leaders and received rousing endorsements from a large number of them. In his media appearances, he exhibited uncharacteristic humility by apologizing several times for past political mistakes. He also tried to remake his image, casting himself as a religious scholar and independent-minded politician, driven by a patriotic sense of duty to the ideals of the Islamic Republic. He did so by reminiscing about his experiences during the early days of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, recalling one occasion when he had a policy disagreement with the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Rafsanjani's speeches featured policy positions sharply at odds with those supported by Ahmadinejad's administration. Rafsanjani subtly accused the president of mismanagement, suggesting that the administration's inattention to domestic social and economic issues undermined Tehran's ability to resist international pressure in the foreign policy arena. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "We can only act as a decisive force in the region when we are assured of domestic support; that is we have not lost cohesiveness because of weaknesses, inflation, undelivered promises, purges of loyal forces, et cetera."
Rafsanjani also indicated that Ahmadinejad's recklessly confrontational tactics had backfired, and, if not quickly adjusted, would stoke a policy nightmare for Iran -- a full-blown confrontation between the Sunni and Shi'a branches of Islam. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He deplored the growing radicalism of both Sunni and Shi'a forces in Iraq: "We Shi'as must control ourselves. Sunnis should do likewise," he said.
At a Qom seminar on Iraq, Rafsanjani described Iran's enemies as "badly wounded," adding that an attack against Iran was a "real possibility" and that Iranians must prepare accordingly. While he did not specifically mention any country, he was widely seen as referring to the United States. In bracing for the worst, Rafsanjani stressed that Iran must act with moderation, doing all that it can to avoid giving a pretext for armed action. "We must be careful not to provoke the enemy or belittle it. ... We must use diplomacy to resolve the problems and under no circumstances should things be allowed to reach a confrontation."
While Rafsanjani was in Qom, the hard-line paper Kayhan, which is close to the Ahmadinejad administration, ran a taunting editorial on "US spies." Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, has in recent days repeatedly ridiculed the United States and its allies as "toothless powers."
Perhaps Rafsanjani's most scrutinized comments during his February 8-9 visit to Qom concerned the incumbent Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who, a wide variety of media outlets report, is seriously ill. The chief responsibility of the Assembly of Experts, which Rafsanjani now ostensibly controls, is selecting a Supreme Leader. Choosing his words carefully, Rafsanjani said that the "most important task facing us is to preserve the (Islamic) order. The [Qom] seminaries and the Assembly of Experts are responsible for this important task."
He added that the office of the Supreme Leader is responsible for providing a solid foundation for Iran's Islamic order. "The Assembly of Experts gives us the best mechanism for choosing the leader," Rafsanjani stated, going on to cite the "very sound" selection process in 1989, when Ayatollah Khamenei was chosen to succeed the deceased Ayatollah Khomeini. He then stressed that the Assembly of Experts needed to be ready to act swiftly in naming a successor to Khamenei. The assembly "at the present moment should not shirk from the responsibility to investigate the [characteristics] of those qualified to serve as the Supreme Leader, the same way it did so in a matter of hours back in 1989." Rafsanjani said. Most media outlets reported these last words verbatim and without commentary. The exception was Rajanews, a pro-presidential website that described Rafsanjani's comments as "strange and astounding." The site also posted several letters from readers containing scathing attacks on Rafsanjani.
Some experts suggest Rafsanjani achieved his primary goal during the February 8-9 visit to Qom -- lining up the support of a critical mass of the country's spiritual leadership. "Qom spread the red carpet and [Rafsanjani] was clearly basking [in the spotlight]," said the Tehran political scientist. "His hosts were competing with each other to shower him with praise."
In Qom, Rafsanjani held private meetings with grand ayatollahs spanning the spiritual spectrum -- from ultra-conservative to the reformists. Clearly absent from the list of Rafsanjani's interlocutors was the name of his theological nemesis, the controversial Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, who is closely aligned with the presidential camp.
While Rafsanjani's talks with the grand ayatollahs occurred behind closed doors, newspaper reports made it clear that these influential clerics endorsed Rafsanjani's views. For example, reform-minded Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei was quoted as telling Rafsanjani, "Your fortitude, faith and courage are exemplary. ... Your popularity with the public and among most factional heads exerts extra pressure on you to navigate the country and the state through the turbulent waters ahead."
The reception offered Rafsanjani in early February in Qom was markedly different from that which he received during a visit he made last May, when he was jeered by young followers of Mesbah Yazdi and forced to cut short a speech. A change in attitude on the part of many grand ayatollahs in the way they perceive Ahmadinejad seems to have played a large role in enhancing Rafsanjani's status in Qom.
"Government-Seminary relations can be described as frosty at the moment," a well-respected religious scholar told EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "Some key figures in the Qom religious establishment have serious misgivings about the present government."
"Most knowledgeable clergymen are unhappy with the diminution of the [influence] of the clergy in society, and they believe this government is doing nothing to remedy [the situation]." According to the religious scholar, Qom's grand ayatollahs reportedly have declined to meet with the president in the last few months.
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.