Friday, January 29, 2010

Attack on the 'Shark' shakes Iran

Attack on the 'Shark' shakes Iran

By Mahan Abedin

As the Islamic Republic continues to grapple with a profound political crisis, the focus of internal wrangling is steadily shifting to the eye of the storm. There is a widespread belief that former Iranian president and a long-time pillar of the establishment, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is at the core of the internal squabbles that are threatening to tear apart the legacy of the Islamic revolution of 1979. Recent weeks have witnessed unprecedented verbal assaults on Rafsanjani, spearheaded by Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, a former head of the judiciary and current influential member of the powerful Guardians' Council.

These unprecedented verbal assaults - which question Rafsanjani's ambiguous stance on the political crisis - would have been unthinkable prior to the controversial June 2009 presidential poll. The collapse of factional politics in the Islamic Republic has
not only made it possible to sideline Rafsanjani, but has even raised the prospect of removing him altogether from the political scene. The impending downfall of Rafsanjani will be the third and potentially most important purge in the history of the Islamic revolution.

Akbar Shah

For most of the past 30 years and until very recently, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had been a pillar of the Iranian revolutionary establishment. With a record of political activism stretching back nearly six decades, Rafsanjani's revolutionary credentials are on a par with Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic revolution.

Rafsanjani's opponents depict him as an ultra-opportunist with little political conviction. In the light of Rafsanjani's long political record and his profound impact on the development of the Islamic Republic, these accusations are not entirely fair or accurate. Prior to the victory of the revolution in February 1979, Rafsanjani was a devoted disciple of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and was wholeheartedly committed to the project of establishing an Islamic state in Iran.

His involvement went so far as playing a pivotal role in the assassination of former Iranian prime minister Hassan Ali Mansour in January 1965. He was arrested and imprisoned by the shah's secret service SAVAK (National Intelligence and Security Organization) on at least three occasions from the early 1960s to the late 1970s.

For his part, Rafsanjani sees himself as a great reformer on a par with Iran's legendary modernist 19th century prime minister, Mirza Taqi Khan Amir-Nezam (aka Amir Kabir). Amir Kabir served as premier in the years 1848 to 1852, during the reign of Naser-al-Din Shah Qajar, who is widely regarded as the first "modern" Iranian monarch.

Rafsanjani's conscious affiliation with aspects of Iran's long monarchical history (which is anathema to Iranian Islamic revolutionaries) led some to label him "Akbar Shah". This title was not only an effusive reference to Rafsanjani's penchant for Persian history, but more importantly it was an allusion to his political style and the fact that by the end of the 1980s he had accumulated all the power and prestige of an absolute Iranian monarch.

Rafsanjani's meteoric political rise in the 1980s - when he was speaker of the Majlis (parliament) - lay in his profound understanding of the chaotic and fragmented politics of the Islamic Republic and his uncanny ability to exploit factional politics to his own advantage. For his extraordinary political skills, his critics and admirers alike labeled him the "shark", thus buttressing his Machiavellian reputation. Rafsanjani's complex and deceptive political style led him to adopt moderate and radical ideological positions, depending on the mood of the day. For this flawless display of expediency, Western governments and the media were by the early 1980s referring to him as a "pragmatist", an altogether not inaccurate description.

A natural oligarch, by the late 1980s Rafsanjani had masterminded an extraordinary accumulation of power and wealth inside his family and among his closest advisers and followers. Following the demise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in June 1989, Rafsanjani moved swiftly to consolidate his position. He masterminded the downfall of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi and led efforts to abolish the premiership post altogether in August 1989, thus increasing the power of the presidency.

Having been elected president in July 1989, this suited Rafsanjani who then collaborated with the arch conservatives and the Islamic right more broadly to sideline the Islamic left. This culminated in the widespread purge of leftist candidates for the April 1992 Majlis elections, which paved the way for the ascendance of the Islamic right. The removal of Mousavi in August 1989 and the parliamentary purge of April 1992 had widespread political and ideological repercussions and contributed directly to the events of June 2009.

Decline of an oligarch

There is a story within establishment circles in Iran that while on his death bed and during his last moments, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran - held the hands of both Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei to forewarn them that the revolution would "endure" as long as the two men stayed "together".

This is probably a myth, but like all myths it has served as a kind of truism, acting as a warning sign to the devotees of the Islamic revolution. Moreover, it served as a unifying call during the early 1990s when the Islamic Republic was struggling to adjust to radically different conditions following the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988 and the demise of the regime's founder-leader the following year.

The myth was enthusiastically taken up by Rafsanjani and his followers - who by the early 1990s had come to be known as the "kargozaran" (technocrats) - who naturally exaggerated Rafsanjani's role in facilitating Khamenei's ascent to the leadership position following Khomeini's demise.

The notion of an unbreakable bond between Rafsanjani and Khamenei was encapsulated by the popular slogan of the day "Khamenei Zendeh Baad Hashemi Payandeh Baad" (roughly translating into "long live Khamenei and Hashemi [Rafsanjani]"). To Rafsanjani's followers, the bond between Khamenei and Rafsanjani symbolized a consensual separation between ideology and government in the Islamic Republic.

To the so-called technocrats, Khamenei in his capacity as the valiye faghih (ruler-scholar) represented the regime's ideology, whereas Rafsanjani as president headed a putatively non-ideological government. To put it in 15th-century Florentine political-religious terms, Khamenei was a latter-day Girolamo Savonarola to Rafsanjani's Niccolo Machiavelli.

From the very outset this division was wholly unacceptable to grassroots supporters of the Islamic regime, who naturally gravitated towards Khamenei. They correctly saw the technocrats' strategy as one designed to gradually reduce the role of velayat-e-faqih (rule of the jurisconsult), which is the ideological cornerstone of Iran's unique system of Islamic government, into a ceremonial one.

To grassroots supporters of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani and his so-called technocrats had embarked on a pseudo-secularization process whose desired outcome was the "normalization" of the Islamic Republic along prevailing Western economic and political discourses.

The massive resistance by the revolution's grassroots to Rafsanjani's political ambitions was exacerbated by his government's poor economic and social performance. By 1993, the government had borrowed tens of billions of dollars from foreign lenders (under the guise of reconstruction following the end of the Iran-Iraq War); inflation was in double digits; and major Iranian cities were rocked by unrest, most noticeably Mashad in May 1992.

Within four years Rafsanjani's government had reversed much of the gains of Mousavi's government in the 1980s. Governmental corruption - which had been drastically reduced in the 1980s - had once again reared its ugly head in the form of half-hearted privatization schemes, which did much to distort the Iranian economy.

By the time of the June 1993 presidential election, the once-powerful Akbar Shah was already in decline. Even though he won a second term, his power and prestige steadily eroded in the period 1993-1997. In the great struggle between ideology and expediency, the former had clearly prevailed, as evidenced by the strengthened position of Ayatollah Khamenei.

The downfall

The 1997 presidential election ushered into power the reformist Seyed Mohammad Khatami. Khatami's stunning electoral victory once again shifted the ideological and political battle in the Islamic Republic to a contest between the Islamic left and the Islamic right.

But there was a crucial difference this time around insofar as sections of the old Islamic left had now "reformed" and were presenting new political-ideological discourses. While there was great variety in these discourses, the dominant trend was set on reconciling the Islamic revolution with normative Western political theory.

In short, the political and social program of former president Khatami and his followers was a prescriptive agenda whose ultimate outcome would inevitably be the embrace of Western-style liberal democracy. To hardcore supporters of the Islamic regime, Khatami's stunning electoral victory presented a mortal threat insofar as it propelled the core structural tensions between the regime's "republican" and "Islamic" dimensions onto a higher plane. Unlike in the 1980s, the reformed nature of the Islamic left raised the specter of the revolution's "democratic" aspirations fatally undercutting its "Islamic" identity.

While during the period 1997-2005 the bulk of the Islamic regime was engaged in containing the more radical features of the reformist program, Rafsanjani was able to maintain his status as a key pillar of the establishment by doing what he did best - playing the factions against each other and appropriating the new political spaces that consequently emerged.

This despite his proven unpopularity, evidenced by his inability to win a seat during the February 2000 parliamentary elections. Rafsanjani had initially entered the race to secure the position of house speaker (which he had held throughout the 1980s) but in the end he couldn't even secure a seat representing the Tehran district.

The overthrow of the reformists in the 2005 presidential election held the prospect of complete dominance by the Islamic right. But just like Khatami's stunning electoral victory eight years earlier, the right's victory came with a twist. The faction that had prevailed in the presidential poll came from the radical fringes of the Islamic right. It had little or no roots in the 1979 revolution and had formed much of its political consciousness either on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq War or the street politics of the 1980s. The most formidable leader of this faction was Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Being a politician of near-flawless foresight, Rafsanjani had seen the writing on the walls. If Ahmadinejad shared one thing with the authentic Islamic left, it was a deep hatred of the "shark". Moreover, Ahmadinejad's stunning success lay not only in his ability to maneuver the radical right to pole position, but also in his appropriation of the Islamic left's rhetoric on social justice and clean government. In this respect he presented a double threat to Rafsanjani.

It was no surprise then that Rafsanjani should do his utmost to bring down Ahmadinejad and clip the wings of the right-wing factions that had either facilitated or acquiesced to Ahmadinejad's rise. It is widely believed that Rafsanjani and his ultra-wealthy family had largely funded Mir Hossein Mousavi's expensive electoral campaign. But in Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani had met his political match. The radical right was set on bringing down the factional edifice on which the Islamic Republic's political society is built. Rafsanjani's intervention merely played into the hands of his deadliest enemies.

The unprecedented demonstrations and riots that followed June's presidential poll - which saw Ahmadinejad re-elected - were an anticipated reaction to the political engineering of the radical right. The scale may have caught some people by surprise, but the disturbances were anticipated by the country's security and intelligence services. The controversial endorsement of Ahmadinejad by Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei in his Friday prayers sermon and speech of June 19, 2009, is best understood as an attempt to lay down the foundations of a post-factional political order.

While the leader sent a set of strategic messages to a wide range of domestic and international actors and stakeholders, his primary audience was the regime's grassroots base. Absent the normal factional equilibrium, the leader's guidance and intervention was now the key to holding the regime and the revolution together. Sensing potentially mortal threats ahead, Khamenei delivered the speech of his life.

Nearly a month later, on July 17, Rafsanjani stood at the same podium at Tehran University to stake out his position on the gravest political crisis to have gripped the regime for the past 30 years. In hindsight, it was all an elaborate trap by his enemies. The very fact that he was allowed to deliver a sermon and speech at such a symbolic venue - given that the regime was well aware of his position - should have alerted this most instinctive of politicians to the plans of his enemies.

In bygone years Rafsanjani would have made an intervention in the midst of a political crisis to address and exploit factional divisions. But the old oligarch had clearly not read the writing on the wall. The factional fabric of the Islamic Republic had collapsed and his enemies on the left and right were now winking at each other across the new political wilderness.

Instead of addressing bickering revolutionary loyalists, Rafsanjani was now talking directly to the revolution's untiring enemies, led by royalists, remnants of militant secular groups removed from the political scene in the early 1980s, disaffected members of the middle classes and their offspring and Western intelligence services, all out to exact an historic revenge on the Islamic Revolution. The shark was fatally cornered.

In what was a rambling, vague and confusing speech, Rafsanjani publicly - albeit tacitly - renounced what remained of the "historic" bond with Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei. He may have realized his fatal mistakes as he haplessly tried to calm down a crowd chanting overtly subversive slogans against the revolution. The slogan of "death to China" must have been particularly galling, for in the early 1990s Rafsanjani and his followers had proposed a Chinese model of economic transformation in the Islamic Republic.

The third purge

"Rafsanjani must be executed for McFarlane," [1] read the slogans on the Tehran University campus (where Friday prayers are staged) in late 1986 as the Shark's central role in the notorious Irangate scandal was exposed. To his enemies, Rafsanjani's political demise is nearly a quarter century late.

The breakdown of Rafsanjani's relationship with Khamenei - which stretches back more than five decades - is a transformative moment in the history of the Islamic revolution and is likely to be a harbinger of profound changes to come. More immediately, the very public breakdown has emboldened Rafsanjani's enemies to attack him directly and consistently, something that was taboo not very long ago.

While the old oligarch - he is 75 - still clings to his official positions as the chairman of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council, the most informed sources in Tehran expect him to be removed from the scene altogether. The impending purge of Rafsanjani may seem unthinkable to many, but it is likely nonetheless.

This purge - when it comes - will be the third of its kind in the Islamic Republic. The first was the impeachment of the Islamic Republic's first president, Abol-Hassan Banisadr, in June 1981 and the second was the removal of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri as Ayatollah Khomeini's heir in early 1989.

In both cases the purges were largely peaceful. In the first case Banisadr was removed so that the regime could purge the so-called "Islamic Liberals" or "American Muslims" as the hardliners called them from the inner sanctums of the Islamic Republic. In the second case Montazeri was purged because it was widely felt that he lacked the political and leadership skills to guide the Islamic revolution.

The purge of Hashemi Rafsanjani may not prove as dramatic or symbolic, but its effects will be equally - if not more - profound. At the very least, the Islamic regime would have sent a message to the outside world that "normalization" along prescriptive Western standards is now out of the question. The Islamic Republic will stand or fall on the strength of its ideology and the pursuit of its rightful destiny.

As for Rafsanjani himself, he may be haunted by the fate of his hero Amir Kabir, who was murdered by the shah's agents in January 1852, merely a few months after being stripped of the premiership. While the physical elimination of such a towering figure is extremely unlikely, it cannot be ruled out altogether. In the light of the unprecedented crisis - with political tensions reaching dangerously high levels - there may be shadowy circles who believe that carefully targeted political violence may act as a stabilizer.

1. A reference to the Iran-Contra affair, a secret arrangement in the 1980s to provide funds to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels from profits gained by selling arms to Iran. Under Robert McFarlane (1983-85) and John Poindexter (1985-86) the US's National Security Council raised private and foreign funds for the Contras.

Mahan Abedin is a senior researcher in terrorism studies and a consultant to independent media in Iran.

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