The death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani comes at a critical moment for Iran. With presidential elections coming up in May, and with an incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington vowing to take a hardline stance against Iran, the country is undergoing political and economic transition.
No one familiar with the internal dynamics of the Islamic Republic doubts the significance of the death of Rafsanjani for the near future of Iranian politics. As one of the founders of the Islamic Republic, a two-term president and close personal friend to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who helped engineer his election to the top post, Rafsanjani became the key behind-the-scenes player, protecting the moderate and reformist factions. His two most well-known protégés, Mohammed Khatami and Hassan Rouhani, followed him into the presidency. When protests erupted following the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, Rafsanjani was the only senior cleric to back the Green Movement, and his public pronouncements averted a much bloodier crackdown.
There is no obvious replacement on the scene. Khatami is barred from any public appearances, and the mere mention of his name in Iranian media is forbidden. Former reformist presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have both been under house arrest since 2011 for their roles in the Green Movement, and even Rafsanjani was stripped of several posts.
Rafsanjani’s daughter just got out of jail, and one son is still behind bars. His other son, Mohsen Hashemi, is running for mayor of Tehran, but none of his children are seen as candidates to take charge of the faction. Apart from his political clout, Rafsanjani was also one of the wealthiest men in Iran—and he was a critical financial backer of the moderate and reform factions that swept the recent presidential and majlis elections.
Furthermore, the Rafsanjani clan’s wealth was always tied to the late Ayatollah’s political clout, so his departure could potentially diminish the influence of his faction in the coming political shakeout.
President Rouhani has made a deal with the Supreme Leader, under which it appeared that his path to re-election was secured. Last year, Khamenei instructed former President Ahmadinejad to abandon his plans to run for president in the May 2017 elections; and Major General Qasem Soleimani, the popular head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, rejected pressure from hardliners to enter the race. As part of the Rouhani-Khamenei deal, the president agreed to name several IRGC holding companies to the short list of Iranian firms designated as approved partners for all foreign concessions in Iran.
Despite that deal, even before Rafsanjani’s death, hardliners, including the powerful head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, were targeting the president on corruption charges, linked to the disappearance of $3 billion in state oil revenues in business deals engineered by businessman Babak Zanjani.
On January 4, 2017, a group of 46 hardline majlis members demanded that President Rouhani’s younger brother, Hossein Fereydoun, be prosecuted on “sedition” charges, claiming that he was usurping some presidential powers for his personal profit. The targeting of Fereydoun was tied to the Zanjani case. The January 5, 2017 issue of the hardline publication Vatan-e Emrooz claimed that Zanjani had confessed to pouring millions of dollars illegally into the Rouhani presidential campaign. Judiciary head Larijani promised to arrest all of the people allegedly named by Zanjani, including the president’s brother, to get to the bottom of the illegal funding charges.
On January 4, 2017, the spokesperson for the Guardian Council, Abbas-Ali Kadokhodai, told the Jams news agency that “There is no guarantee that a president will be approved for a second term.” The Guardian Council must approve all candidates for national office, and in 2013, they barred Rafsanjani from running again for president. Rafsanjani then quietly organized a coalition of support for Rouhani, who won by a wide margin.
While it had appeared that this upsurge of attacks from the hardline factions was in frustration over the fact that they do not have a credible candidate to challenge Rouhani, the death of Rafsanjani could strengthen the rightwing factions considerably.
Given the shift in the political factional balance, there are new prospects of a hardline candidate emerging before the May elections. A source close to former President Ahmadinejad believe he could make a bid for the presidency, testing whether the death of Rafsanjani might alter the Supreme Leader’s injunction against his running. Two other leading hardline clerics, Mohammed Yazdi and Mohammed Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, could also emerge as candidates.
In one clear indication of the growing power of the rightwing factions, the majlis voted on January 9, 2017 to boost defense spending to five percent of the country’s GDP. Between 2015-2016, spending on the army, the IRGC and the ministry of defense was only two percent of GDP. The majlis vote was 173-10.
The other looming question for Iranian leaders is how to approach the incoming Trump administration in Washington. Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis and National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn are both on record calling for much tougher military options against Iran. President-elect Trump recently tweeted that he would never allow Iran to develop long-range ballistic missiles, which are already being tested.
However, Trump’s Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon-Mobil, understands that Iran is an emerging giant in the oil and gas sector, and he knows that Japanese, French and Chinese oil companies are already making deals with Iran for energy infrastructure and new explorations. Tillerson could make a credible case to President Trump that the United States should not be sidelined as the Iranian energy sector goes through a post-sanctions recovery.
The so-called “Trump factor” will remain uncertain for months, as the new administration settles in, as Cabinet confirmations take their course in the US Senate and as Trump’s leadership style as “America’s CEO” takes shape. It is likely that the internal Iranian dynamics going into the May presidential elections will run their course before it is clear what the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran will be.