by Bryan Burgess
The January 10th funeral of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani drew the eyes of the world to Tehran, Iran’s capital. Ayatollahs and Presidents gave eulogies, hard-line Conservatives and progressive Reformists wept for the former president, and crowds larger than any seen since the 2009 election took to the streets to mourn and protest. With the presidential elections scheduled for May 19th, the sudden death of an anchor of Iranian politics has introduced a dramatic level of uncertainty into an election that most anticipated being a fait accompli for Hassan Rouhani, just as Rafsanjani neared the apex of his political rehabilitation.
Rarely does the title of “President” come as a rider to a politician’s legacy, but for Rafsanjani, and much of Iran, his corruption- and repression-marred two terms as Iran’s head of government (1989-1997) are secondary in a career that earned him recognition as one of two “Pillars of the State” and as Iran’s kingmaker.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was both one of the longest-standing politicians in Iran- he was one of those closest to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini, before the 1979 revolution- and one of the most battered, surviving a huge loss to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the presidential elections of 2005, accusations of supporting massive anti-government protests in 2009, and a rivalry with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet he also put Ayatollah Khamenei in power and helped form the winning coalition that secured Rouhani’s election in 2013.
Rafsanjani was expected to throw his weight behind Rouhani this May, indeed, he was one of the greatest assets to the coalition of Iran’s Reformist-Moderate coalition.
As a senior statesman and a leader with irreproachable revolutionary credentials, Rafsanjani has been able to push progressive ideas into the Conservative-dominated government that would get most other politicians fired and blacklisted.
His ability to open up space for the Moderates to pursue policy enabled Rouhani to follow through on controversial parts of his agenda, particularly the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known in the United States as the Iran Deal.
Hard-line Conservatives, however, have made bold moves to claim the legacy of Rafsanjani for their camp. Burying Rafsanjani in the same mausoleum as Khomeini, Iran’s hard-liners depicted Rafsanjani as a supporter of a strict religious-political order and conservative values. They went so far as to paint the pro-Reformist chanting that erupted throughout the crowds gathered for the funeral as evidence of conservative support. These moves have given the Conservative camp a hold on the icon, and deprived the Moderates and Reformists of one of their most effective symbols in the upcoming election.
The Reformists will have to fight an uphill battle to reclaim the image of Rafsanjani. Broad fractures run through the Reformist camp, down to the generational divide between the younger generation, which views Rafsanjani as a bulwark against the hard-liners, and the older generations, which remember his presidency as one rife with corruption. Despite being the darling of Washington wonks and analysts, the Green Movement, a name given to the massive pro-reform protests after the disputed presidential election of 2009, has been smothered. Its leaders, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi, are under house arrest, their papers have been shut down, and the National Trust Party’s leadership spent the end of December resigning. Reformist candidates for parliament or the presidency are routinely disqualified by Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council, and the Iranian press is banned from even naming former president Mohammad Khatami.
For all of his progressive rhetoric and his detente with the West, it is worth remembering that Rouhani, as well as his Moderate faction, is at his core a conservative– a moderate and pragmatic one, but a conservative nonetheless.
His ideology is primarily one of economic change, rather than a dramatic reassessment of the social or political status quo. Rouhani sits in the middle of a highly circumscribed political scale- one missing most of the left. There is hope for the Reformist-Moderate coalition, however. Reformist candidates won big in February’s parliamentary elections, and the key power broker Mohammad Reza Aref received more votes than any other candidate in Tehran, amounting to a popular mandate for his progressive agenda. The Reformist faction in parliament succeeded in confirming Rouhani’s more progressive cabinet appointees this November, and Aref pledged reformist support for Rouhani in May, giving the president “good grades” for his performance.
Conservatives, despite their recent victories in the wake of Rafsanjani’s funeral, still lack a single candidate to rally behind. Key Conservatives, including the speaker of parliament Ali Larijani and foreign minister Javad Zarif have decided not to run, and Ayatollah Khamenei blocked Ahmadinejad’s candidacy. The potential candidates come from the B-List of Conservative politicians, though each could pose a significant challenge to Rouhani should the bloc unite behind one of them.
For many Conservatives, particularly the increasingly powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the focus is not on the presidency, but rather the next Supreme Leader. This is because unlike the presidency’s four-year terms, the Supreme Leader holds office for life, and has direct control of the military and effective control of the judiciary; the Supreme Leader serves as the center of the Iranian political system. Ayatollah Khamenei’s advanced age has become a concern for many, and the IRGC is maneuvering to ensure that the next leader is a strong ally of theirs.
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Despite not running against Rouhani, those conservatives vying for the role of Supreme Leader may yet influence the presidential election. Sadegh Larijani, brother of Ali and current head of the judiciary, launched accusations of corruption against Rouhani and his brother at the beginning of January. Another contender, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, former head of the judiciary, stands to undercut Rouhani’s campaigning on the Citizens’ Rights Charter he unveiled on December 19th, as Shahroudi issued his own Citizens’ Rights Charter while head of the judiciary in 2004. Finally, the older cleric Mohammad-Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, a decades-long sparring partner of Rafsanjani, may pounce on the opportunity to finally best his opponent by ousting his protege Rouhani.
Capping off the political confusion, Rouhani has yet to formally announce his re-election bid, despite lacking a unified opposition. This move is widely seen as a means to delay the deluge of attack media, and preserve his image in the media for as long as possible. Without a coordinated or compelling force leading the campaign against Rouhani, the May election will be decided first and foremost by the opinion of the Iranian people.
Rouhani won in 2013 with a huge margin, caused inflation to fall to its lowest rate in 25 years, and has the support of the popular Reformists, yet many Iranians have yet to feel any economic benefits, and the JCPOA is beginning to look more like a liability than a crowning achievement.
Finally, Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric and his recent Executive Order halting entry and visas to Iranian citizens have been a boon to hard-liners, who oppose what they view as Rouhani’s naive capitulation to Western powers- particularly without the unimpeachably nationalist Rafsanjani to support Rouhani.
However well-documented the reformist and progressive desires of the Iranian people, conservative opinion still enjoys significant grassroots support, and the victor this May will not be the candidate who can shape or redirect public opinion, but who is flexible enough to be shaped by it and survive. Two upcoming dates will serve as crucial barometers for the upcoming election: February 19th will be 40 days after Rafsanjani’s funeral, and, echoing the pre-Revolutionary protests of 1978, the protesters that came out en masse on January 10th may once more return to the streets; and May 12th, a week before the election, will fortuitously be the Birthday of the Imam Mahdi, a holy day for Shiites that has been a day of both intense religious nationalism and protest.
There is a long-held tradition in Britain that believes the weather on St. Swithun’s day augurs that of the next 40; in Iran, the climate on May 12th may well determine the next four years of Iranian politics.
Bryan Burgess is a junior at the College of William & Mary majoring in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. He is the Managing Editor for the Monitor: Journal of International Studies, a research assistant at AidData, a lab that works with donors, governments and civil society organizations around the world to improve international development. He is also an active member of the International Relations and Cycling clubs. In his free time, he enjoys riding his bike through the Virginia countryside and making cider.
The photo above was taken by Arbeitsbesuch Iran on April 28th, 2014, is under a CC BY 2.0 license, and can be found here.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.