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Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s Death and Trump Policy on Iran
The death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani on January 8 will dramatically change Iranian politics. He was one of the handful of the architects of the fundamentalist system in Iran. Between late 1981 and June 1989, he was the second most powerful figure after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Rafsanjani orchestrated the selection of Ali Khamenei as the Supreme Leader in June 1989, while he himself became President and the most powerful figure in Iran for the following four years. Rafsanjani was one of the two most powerful figures between 1993 and 1997, when Khamenei gradually accumulated the powers that the fundamentalist constitution had granted his office. During this first phase of his political life, Rafsanjani was extremely tyrannical, presiding over two reigns of terrors: 1981-1983 (when the regime mass murdered over 12,000 political prisoners) and 1988 (when the regime mass murdered about 5,000 political prisoners many of whom had already gone through unfair trials and given prison sentences).
During Rafsanjani’s presidency (1989-1997), his Ministry of Intelligence carried out assassinations of about 200 non-violent moderate liberal dissidents and progressive literary figures inside Iran. The decision on the individuals to be assassinated were made by the “Special Affairs Committee,” which comprised the Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rafsanjani, Minister of Intelligence Ali Fallahian, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Gen. Mohsen Rezaee.
Between 1981 and 1997, the Iranian government also carried out at least 162 assassinations in 19 countries around the world. In one such operation, the agents of the Iranian government assassinated four dissidents in a Berlin restaurant called Mykonos. Convictions in the German court resulted in international arrest warrants by the Interpol for Fallahian. The German court ruled that Iran’s senior leaders had ordered the assassinations. Under Rafsanjani, the Iranian government regularly assassinated Iranian dissidents in Europe, a fact known by the European and American governments.
During Rafsanjani’s presidency, the Iranian government also carried out large numbers of terrorist attacks against the U.S. government, Israel, and Jewish population. For example, in 1996, the Iranian government recruited, trained, and sent Saudi Shias to blow up U.S. Air Force barracks in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American military personnel. It is also believed that under Rafsanjani, Iranian government recruited the Lebanese Hezbollah to attack the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Argentina, which killed 85 civilians. The Interpol, again, issued another international arrest warrant for Fallahian. Mr. Fallahian, a close-associate of Rafsanjani, is a member of the Assembly of Experts, which chooses the next Supreme Leader.
Rafsanjani’s power declined after his attempt to change the constitution in order to run for a third term was thwarted by Khamenei. During this second phase spanning from 1997 to 2009, he remained terribly authoritarian and switched his support back and forth between the hard-line and reformist factions of the oligarchy. Although he was a member of two political bodies (Assembly of Experts and Expediency Council) which possess limited powers, his attempt to win the presidency failed in 2005. Rafsanjani’s power during this period rested, to large extent, on the widespread belief that if Khamenei were to die, Rafsanjani would be the most likely person to become the next Supreme Leader.
The third phase of Rafsanjani’s political life began after the 2009 protests when millions of people protested the disputed election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for presidency. During this period, Rafsanjani mildly criticized the authoritarian policies of the hard-liners and Khamenei while remaining extremely polite and submissive to the person of Khamenei. Rafsanjani supported Mir Hussein Moussavi in 2009 and Hassan Rouhani in 2013 for presidency, which endeared him to vast numbers of people who came to consider him their man within the halls of power.
The reformist faction of the fundamentalist oligarchy and their social base have remained supportive of the fundamentalist regime. This is due, in large parts, to the belief that their patience would allow them to remain relevant within the regime, so when Khamenei dies, under the leadership of Rafsanjani, the members of the Assembly of Experts would choose a Supreme Leader to their liking. Rafsanjani’s death means the collapse of the strategy of the reformist faction.
Rafsanjani was a member of the Assembly of Experts. Last year, he revealed that a special committee was formed to come up with a short list of candidates to be the next Supreme Leader. He also revealed that the committee had chosen two persons. It is believed that one of the persons is Ebrahim Raisi. The hard-liners have been grooming Ebrahim Raisi to be the next Supreme Leader. He is a 56-year old cleric, who is also extremely reactionary and authoritarian with a bloody past. He was one of the main officials responsible for the massacre of political prisoners in 1988. He is also very close to Khamenei, his influential son Mojtaba, the IRGC, and the intelligence and security agencies.
Rafsanjani’s death also means substantial weakening of President Hassan Rouhani, who relied upon him to gather support for his policies both publically and behind the scenes. This drastically reduces Rouhani’s chances for re-election in May.
Rafsanjani’s death has dramatically changed the balance of power within the ruling fundamentalist oligarchy to the detriment of reformist and expedient (Rafsanjani-Rouhani) factions, and to the great benefit of the hard-line faction. The hard-liners would probably wait a month or two before they launch a campaign to weaken Rouhani. Then they will pursue more extreme domestic and foreign policies.
The fundamentalist regime is suffering from a serious crisis of legitimacy and perilous economic conditions. Rafsanjani and the reformist faction have brought a modicum of popular support for the regime. A large segment of the population, having seen no realistic alternative to the regime, have lent their support and votes to Rafsanjani-Rouhani group (the lesser of two evils) mainly to undermine Khamenei and the hard-liners. If regime change becomes a realistic alternative, then large numbers of Iranians would see fewer reasons to support the ruling dictatorship.
At this critical juncture, the Trump administration should avoid any policies that would help the regime economically, politically, or diplomatically. For example, the Trump administration and Congress should designate the IRGC as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. They should also put sanctions on Ebrahim Raisi for gross human rights violations.