July 01, 2009
Iran's Unlikely Hero
Posted by Mehrsa Baradaran

In 2003, Forbes Magazine published an article entitled Millionaire Mullahs.  The article discusses the concentrated wealth that the elite clerics and well-positioned revolutionaries have amassed since 1979.  The undisputed champion of positioning, politics, and amassing wealth is a man at the center of Iran’s current uprising, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.  Here is Forbes’ take on Rafsanjani back in 2003:

 [Iran’s] economy is dominated by shadow business empires and its power is protected by a shadow         army of enforcers. Ironically, the man most adept at manipulating this hidden power structure is one of Iran's best-known characters--Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been named an ayatollah, or religious leader. He was the speaker of parliament and Khomeini's right-hand man in the 1980s, president of Iran from 1989 to 1997 and is now chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, which resolves disputes between the clerical establishment and parliament. Rafsanjani has more or less run the Islamic Republic for the past 24 years.

He played it smart, aligning himself in the 1960s with factions led by Ayatollah Khomeini, then becoming the go-to guy after the revolution. A hard-liner ideologically, Rafsanjani nonetheless has a pragmatic streak. He convinced Khomeini to end the Iran-Iraq war and broke Iran's international isolation by establishing trade relations with the Soviet Union, China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In the 1990s he restarted Iran's nuclear program. He is also the father of Iran's "privatization" program. During his presidency the stock market was revived, some government companies were sold to insiders, foreign trade was liberalized and the oil sector was opened up to private companies. Most of the good properties and contracts, say dissident members of Iran's Chamber of Commerce, ended up in the hands of mullahs, their associates and, not least, Rafsanjani's own family, who rose from modest origins as small-scale pistachio farmers.

[...]  The 1979 revolution transformed the Rafsanjani clan into commercial pashas. One brother headed the country's largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran's $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani's sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far). Today, operating through various foundations and front companies, the family is also believed to control one of Iran's biggest oil engineering companies, a plant assembling Daewoo automobiles, and Iran's best private airline (though the Rafsanjanis insist they do not own these assets).

The article does not paint a pretty picture of Rafsanjani.  Pre-Ahmadinejad, he was arguably the most despised public figure in Iran – the poster-child for corruption and dirty business in a country were the average family's annual income is about $2000.  He has been referred to as “the spider” for the careful way he weaves a network of political and business alliances, but many now hope that it’s Rafsanjani’s ever-pragmatic business sense that will save the opposition movement in Iran.

While Mir Hossein Mousavi may be the face of the current opposition, absent the open, vocal and financial support from Rafsanjani, Mousavi and the reform movement would not have its current legs.  Rafsanjani has been a long time and outspoken critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  My guess is that Rafsanjani is less concerned with Ahmadinejad’s populist and isolationist rhetoric (which may have benefitted him financially) than he is with a national economy out of control and a new generation of cronies that have ascended with him, each with their open palms.  Ahmadinejad has also gotten significant political mileage out of making Rafsanjani the common man’s enemy, a strategy that has further pitted the two against each other. A thorough article of Rafsanjani’s move towards the moderate camp can be found here

It is clear now, however, that the opposition movement has gone beyond the question of the presidency and Ahmadinejad to a challenge of the entire system of Velayat-e faqih whereby clerics have the ultimate say in all secular matters.  Iran’s system of government (diagrams here and here) guards all the final authority with the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his Guardian Council, leaving the elected politicians only the power that they are granted from above.  In the past, calls from the electorate for reform have been uniformly ignored by the elite religious leaders within the Islamic power structure.  But Ahmadinejad has been a divisive politician and rifts have grown among the clerics.  The growing discontent among many established leaders, including Rafsanjani, for Ahmadinejad, plus Khamenei’s unquestioned support for Ahmadinejad, plus a very popular Mousavi running against the incumbent, plus Ahmadinejad and his supporter’s blatant and overzealous rigging of the election has created a perfect storm that is the first real challenge to the system of rule that has dominated since the revolution.

This is what the Times wrote about Rafsanjani last week:

It is a quirk of history that Mr. Rafsanjani, the ultimate insider, finds himself aligned with a reform movement that once vilified him as deeply corrupt. Mr. Rafsanjani was doctrinaire anti-American hard-liner in the early days of the revolution who remains under indictment for ordering the bombing in of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994 when he was president. But he has evolved over time to a more pragmatic view, analysts say.

He supports greater opening to the West, privatizing parts of the economy, and granting more power to civil elected institutions. His view is opposite of those in power now who support a stronger religious establishment and have done little to modernize the stagnant economy.


Who knows Rafsanjani’s motives for becoming such an ardent supporter of the opposition movement.  It could be that another term of Ahmadinejad as president would simply be too detrimental to his net worth, or maybe Ahmadinejad simply hurt his feelings by labeling him the consummate corrupt politician.  I wonder if, now in his 74th year, Mr. Rafsanjani has taken a hard look at his legacy as a founding father of the revolution and is now determined that he be remembered not for robbing the country blind, but for putting the ‘republic’ in Islamic Republic.

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