As the field of candidates for Iran’s presidential election takes shape, the most intriguing entry into the race is Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. His candidacy is a threat to all other candidates—and more critically, it presents a major challenge to Iran’s most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Despite the generational changes that have shaped the Iranian system in recent years, Rafsanjani’s challenge to Khamenei may take this election back to the future.
After Iran’s 1979 revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini faced the herculean task of shaping widespread upheaval into what eventually became the Islamic Republic. Through this deeply violent and non-democratic decision-making process, five men are commonly thought to have been pillars at Khomeini’s side: Mohammad Beheshti, Mohammad Javad Bahonar, Morteza Motahhari, Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Ali Khamenei. Three were killed in terror attacks shortly after the revolution. Two pillars remain—and they are openly challenging one another for the future of the Islamic Republic.
The power struggle is serious and dates back years. Since the contested 2009 presidential election, Rafsanjani has repeatedly—though often indirectly—criticized Khamenei’s policies and governance. In an April 2013 meeting with former governors, Rafsanjani openly stated that distrust exists between him and the Supreme Leader—an unprecedented move in Iranian political culture. He also criticized Khamenei’s governance for allowing the Revolutionary Guard undue influence in Iran’s economic and foreign policy, and enabling the development of a militarized state.
Mostly, however, Rafsanjani has castigated the state for oppressing Green Movement demonstrators. He indirectly emphasized to Khamenei that unleashing the security forces against a diverse socioeconomic swath of Iranian society was wrong. As a result, some in the Iranian opposition and among Iran’s youth have grown to appreciate Rafsanjani’s support for their movement. Others, of course, remain deeply opposed to him.
Khamenei has another cause for concern: the relative successes of Rafsanjani’s policies during his two terms as president (1989-1997). These accomplishments by his team of technocrats—post-war reconstruction, improved relations with the world and a greater degree of overall economic stability—are seen by some as a high point in the contentious life of the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani also established the Islamic Azad University in 1982, which now is the world’s third-largest university by enrollment numbers, with four hundred branches across Iran and the world and an accumulation of assets estimated to be worth $20–25 billion.
What makes Rafsanjani such a polarizing figure, however, is the other side of his political legacy, which some in Iran associate with corruption and the murders of political opponents abroad.
Khamenei’s team knows this, but they also realize that a general belief has taken shape among a portion of Iranian society: despite his past, Rafsanjani is also a nationalist who wants Iran to become a powerful country. The deterioration of political, economic and social life has led to some hoping that his candidacy can decrease the debilitating effects of mismanagement and sanctions. This is quite the departure from Rafsanjani’s 2005 campaign, when he was portrayed—not entirely incorrectly—as a personification of the nepotism and corruption that plagues the Islamic Republic.
Precisely because Rafsanjani is such a polarizing figure in Iranian politics, he has a unique ability to mobilize voters, including both supporters and detractors. And preelection mobilization in Iran has proven that it can help facilitate unpredictable outcomes. So, what can Khamenei do to hedge against Rafsanjani? None of his options appear cost-free.
Disqualifying Rafsanjani is not impossible, but it appears unlikely. He still has support from important power networks inside the system, particularly the business and clerical networks. Both have already voiced their support for his candidacy. In an effort to avoid splitting the vote among multiple candidates, key reformists have also united behind him.
Building a strong conservative coalition of loyalists—including, but not limited to, Ali Akbar Velayati, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and Saeed Jalili—to back a single candidate is likely Khamenei’s first step at pushing back. However, this is easier said than done. Each man currently sees himself as best suited for the position, and will seek assurances on key positions in return for withdrawing from the race. Back room deals are common in the Islamic Republic, but it remains unclear whether a divided set of conservative factions can coalesce.
Beyond coalition building, Khamenei has tacitly allowed public attacks against Rafsanjani in an effort to reduce his level of support and votes. This process can include public statements, spreading rumors through the media, releasing files of previously undisclosed information, and possibly even physical attacks. The latter scenario sounds extreme, but it would not be the first time that someone tried to take Rafsanjani’s life.
Of course, the flip side to all of this is that Rafsanjani’s political clout has been on the decline for years. His official positions within the ruling elite have dwindled to one. His children have been harassed or imprisoned. His control over the aforementioned Islamic Azad University network was stripped away. This is all the more remarkable given Rafsanjani’s long-time role of arbiter to resolve differences between left- and right-wing factions. With the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, some reformist politicians credit him for preventing fraud in the 1997 election that brought Mohammad Khatami to power.
At the time, Iran’s reformists were as divided as conservatives are today. Some reformist factions used media outlets to paint Rafsanjani—rather than Khamenei or the system as a whole—as the source of Iran’s ills. As this portrayal dragged on, Rafsanjani’s influence declined. Paradoxically, the man who crafted backroom deals to help provide reformists with political space was sidelined in part by reformist factions who had good reasons to criticize him. Smelling blood, Khamenei milked this process through state-run media to increase his power at Rafsanjani’s expense.
All of this begs two questions that will likely remain unanswered: Why hasn’t Rafsanjani fought back? And why does Khamenei continue to keep Rafsanjani on the outskirts of the political elite? Perhaps the two remaining pillars of the revolution believe that if one pillar is eliminated, the system they helped create could come tumbling down. No less plausible is the opposite end of the spectrum: realpolitik limits how far they can go in attacking one another.
Little is clear today besides this: Rafsanjani entering the race is a game-changer. All political factions have been forced to rethink, if not entirely reconsider, their electoral alliances and strategies. As a result, Khamenei will not get the neatly managed vote that he likely prefers. Instead, Iran’s election increasingly resembles the game of elite competition that has characterized years past. Looking ahead, the electoral picture will remain hazy until candidate vetting is done—or perhaps longer.
What does this mean for Washington? If Iranian stakeholders cannot predict the election outcome, U.S. officials will not fare any better. Nevertheless, they can take two important steps between now and Election Day. First, they should develop responses to all potential election outcomes, leaving flexibility to tailor responses to specific results. Second, they should use this downtime to find more ways of offering sanctions relief. The likelihood of peaceful democratic change in Iran will remain low if stakeholders continue prioritizing a securitized state to combat foreign pressure.
None of this provides a silver bullet. There is a reason why seasoned Iran watchers concede every four years that the only predictable aspect of Iranian elections is their unpredictability. Regardless of what happens between now and June 14, Rafsanjani’s gambit, irrespective of its final result, has reaffirmed the first lesson in Iranian politics: Iran has politics.