When Hashemi Rafsanjani lost his bid for the presidency to a dark horse five months ago, he was the subject of political obituaries. They were premature. Iran’s strongman, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has since discovered the new president is badly short of the diplomatic savvy and political prestige with which the old-timer former president is endowed and which Tehran badly needs at this time.
Saturday, October 1, Mohsen Rezah, secretary of the secretive decision-making core of the Islamic regime, the Expediency Council, announced Rafsanjani’s appointment to a job which ranks second only to Khamenei himself: oversight of the government, parliament and judiciary’s application of the Expediency Council’s 20-year development plan.
Rafsanjani’s elevation clips the wings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the man who beat him in the May-June 2005 race for the presidency – especially since, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Tehran sources, the ex-president, rather than the incumbent, is the frontrunner as leader of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the world community.
This is not to say that Khamenei has not as usual hemmed in his reward of high office with enough ifs and buts to pull the rug from under Rafsanjani’s feet any time. This is how the supreme ruler’s fail-safe mechanism works.
The Expediency Council’s role is to arbitrate in disputes between parliament – the majlis – and the Guardians Council, which is an unelected senate-type constitutional watchdog, whose importance has declined since radical factions seized control of both parliament and the Guardians.
By appointing Rafsanjani as senior controller over the broad policy-making process, Khamenei has reduced the influence of the hard-line parliamentary faction which is Ahmadinejad’s power base and transferred it to Rafsanjani.
On the other hand, he has appropriated the power to arbitrate between the two bodies. Henceforth, every Expediency Council decision must be ratified by the supreme ruler.
Khamenei toys with new and old favorites
Tehran insiders are buzzing now with a question: how many of Rafsanjani’s decisions will Khamenei endorse? The answer will be the barometer of his clout. But the supreme ruler is free at any time to reject most of those decisions, so reducing Ransanjani to the status of a state controller whose report makes a loud splash – only to be promptly binned.
The supreme ruler has been toying with the president and his most eminent loser since before the presidential election five months ago.
At the end of the campaign, Ahmadinejad was raised from practically nowhere to the presidency; Rafsanjani was encouraged to run as the favorite, only to be cast aside. The hard-headed Khamenei feared that formalizing the veteran politician’s standing by making him president would empower him to swing all the way to the top and threaten his own absolute sway over all the radical elements in Iran.
For this reason, he put Ahmadinejad forward and made sure he would beat Rafsanjani by a substantial majority in both rounds of the presidential election. The West was surprised, but not Tehran’s power centers.
But then, the inexperienced president started putting his foot in it – first in September when he shouted to the UN General Assembly that Iran would never give up its right to develop and possess nuclear weapons; then, on October 1, when he was forced to back away from the rash threat he made in an interview to cut oil sales if the UN watchdog referred Tehran’s nuclear activities to the Security Council.
It was clear that the Islamic Republic could not afford any more goofs in the conduct of its security and nuclear affairs and foreign relations. The hidebound novice was about to plunge Iran into isolation – even in the Muslim world – and bring down on its head UN economic sanctions which Tehran can ill afford. It had become necessary to pluck him fast out of the international limelight.
Therefore, having first cut Rafsanjani down to size, Khameinei chose to restore him to what he saw as his natural place and exploit his gifts as the only politician in the Islamic regime with the prestige, connections in the international community and standing as a man of reason. The former president would know how to put Iran’s case before the world with minimal damage.
Evidence of the shift in Tehran’s power stakes was noted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Tehran sources in the last ten days of September.
“Nuclear power for peaceful purposes” – and nothing but
Tuesday, Sept. 20, Tehran Radio broadcast live a speech by Iranian defense minister Mohamed Mustapha Najjar to Revolutionary Guards commanders. Referring to the national nuclear program, the minister said: “Iran is committed to achieving nuclear power.” No sooner were the words said, when the broadcast was cut and replaced with a sudden burst of music. Fifteen minutes later, the studio reconnected with the minister, without explaining the breakdown. This time, Najjar spoke to a reporter who asked him to clarify national nuclear policy for the listeners’ benefit.
He then trotted out an amended statement: “Iran is committed to achieving nuclear power solely for peaceful purposes.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s monitors have no doubt that Khamenei’s men who rule Iran’s airwaves stepped in fast to censor the politically incorrect rhetoric uttered before the Revolutionary Guards commanders and replace them with the approved version.
Three days later, Sept. 23, Rafsanjani took the occasion of a Friday sermon to recommend to the tyro president “a policy of wisdom and logic,” instead of sloganeering. This advice clearly reflected widespread disappointment with the new president’s abrasive UN speech.
The same sermon also reveals more subtle criticism of the guidelines Ahmadinejad handed down to the Iranian delegation for presentation to the UN nuclear watchdog’s board meeting in Vienna, which resolved to refer Iran’s nuclear activities to the UN Security Council. The delegation was headed by the president’s appointee Ali Larijani, secretary of the National Security Council. Rafsanjani implied that Laijani’s mishandling of the presentation under the president’s instructions was responsible for this outcome and had brought sanctions dangerously near.
Certainly, a more masterly conduct of the thorny nuclear issue can be expected from the critic. This is no guarantee that Tehran will back away from its objective, but only that the diplomacy will be a lot more polished and palatable once that objective is finally resolved.
That resolution is still in the hands of Iran’s supreme (unelected) ruler.