Would a Rafsanjani Presidency Undermine Deal with Iran?
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Would a Rafsanjani Presidency Undermine Deal with Iran?

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Former Iranian President Hashemi Akbar Rafsanjani registered to run as a candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential election, currently scheduled for June 14. His candidacy must be approved by the country’s Guardian Council, an election body chosen by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and its Chief Justice, who is himself appointed by the Supreme Leader.

Rafsanjani, often called “the shark” owing to his clean shaven face and shrewd political maneuvering, served as Iran’s president following the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He also played a pivotal role in Khamenei’s appointment as Supreme Leader, but the two men have been engaged in a power struggle ever since.

Since before the Iranian revolution Rafsanjani was a close confidante of Imam Khomeini and served in a number of posts during his lifetime, including Speaker of the Parliament and the day-to-day commander-in-chief of the Iranian military near the end of the war with Iraq. In the latter position, he was reportedly one of the individuals responsible for persuading Khomeini to agree to a ceasefire with Saddam Hussein after eight bitter years of war.

Rafsanjani’s last presidency (1989-1997) was characterized by a focus on rebuilding the economy following a decade of revolution and war. As such, he filled his cabinet, “the cabinet of reconstruction,” with a group of technocrats. According to Saïd Amir Arjomand, an Iran expert at Stony Brook University, Rafsanjani’s second cabinet consisted of nine engineers and eight individuals with M.D.s and PhDs.

As president Rafsanjani also reopened Tehran’s stock market and put forth a legal framework for privatization in his First Five-Year Development Plan (1990-1994), although the latter faltered amid opposition from Iran’s Parliament.

That said, the size of the government swelled during his presidency with the number of public employees (excluding armed forces) growing from 1.4 million people (2.8 percent of the population) in 1987, to 2.3 million people (3.9 percent of the population in 1997), according to Arjomand. Ultimately, Rafsanjani’s economic agenda was largely unsuccessful as the economy was plagued by high levels of inflation among myriad other issues.

As part of his drive to boost the economy, Rafsanjani also tried to repair Iran’s relations with its neighbors and global powers including the United States and Europe. Following George H.W. Bush saying “good will begets good will” during his inaugural address in 1989, Rafsanjani reached out to the American administration through the UN.

When told that the U.S. would recognize Saddam as the aggressor in the Iraq War if Iran would convince Hezbollah to free American hostages in Lebanon, Rafsanjani put heavy pressure on the Lebanese group to do just that. Owing to Rafsanjani’s pressure and the extraordinary effort of Italian UN diplomat Giandomenico Picco, the last hostage was freed in 1991. By that time, however, the Bush administration decided that it no longer wanted to form a new relationship with Iran.

Undeterred, Rafsanjani began reaching out to the U.S. again after Bill Clinton’ was elected in 1992. This culminated in Rafsanjani awarding Iran’s first post-revolutionary oil contract—worth US$1 billion— to the American oil company Conoco, believing that a beneficial economic relationship would pave the way to the resumption of political ties.

Despite the State Department having assured Conoco that the White House would approve a deal during its negotiations with Iran, Clinton issued two executive orders following the announcement that effectively banned any U.S. companies from investing in Iran’s oil industry. As Clinton and later President Obama’s Middle East aide, Dennis Ross, explained: “We weren't interested in creating a new opening towards Iran. We were interested in containing what we saw as a threat.” The next year the U.S. Congress made Clinton’s executive orders the law of the land with the passage of the Iran Libya Sanctions Act of 1996.

Although Rafsanjani has lost both a Parliamentary campaign and the 2005 Presidential Election since his presidency ended, he has remained a powerful figure in Iranian politics (the second most powerful after Khamenei, most observers agreed until 2011). Besides being a cleric and one of the wealthiest individuals in the country, he served for years as both the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a body charged with selecting and theoretically supervising the Supreme Leader and of the Expediency Council, which adjudicates disputes between the Parliament and the Guardian Council. His implicit support of the Green Movement following the 2009 elections created even more animosity between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, however, and he was removed as Chairman of the Assembly of Experts in 2011. He remains the chairman of the less powerful Expediency Council.

He is also one of current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s most ardent rivals. Rafsanjani lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 election during which Ahmadinejad campaigned in no small part on criticisms of Rafsanjani and other revolutionary elites who he charged had become corrupt and used their positions in power to amass large personal fortunes. Ahmadinejad has made it a point throughout his presidency to portray himself as standing up to Rafsanjani and other regime stalwarts, and in the 2009 presidential election claimed he wasn’t merely running against former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi, but rather against a united front comprised Mousavi, Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former Reformist president.

Khamenei is almost certain to try to undermine Rafsanjani’s campaign, although it’s unlikely the Guardian Council will declare him ineligible to run given Rafsanjani’s clout with Iran’s clerics and certain political leaders, including the Reformists. During the 2005 presidential campaign, one of Rafsanjani’s sons, Mehdi Hashemi, told the Atlantic Council’s Barbara Slavin that if Rafsanjani won he would work to turn the Supreme Leader into a ceremonial post like the “King of England.”

Around the same time, in an interview with Slavin, the elder Rafsanjani also suggested he’d still be open to having a dialogue with the United States if he was reelected to Iran’s presidency.

He appears to still have similar views regarding negotiations with the U.S., writing on his website last month, that only “domestic empathy and global coexistence” could solve Iran’s problems, and stating “if we could realize these two facts, our problems will solve gradually.”

Although Rafsanjani is almost certain to be in favor of negotiating with the United States, the chances of a U.S.-Iran deal could, paradoxically, be reduced if he is elected president next month.

Any deal with the U.S. would require the approval of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who is unlikely to want a rival to power like Rafsanjani such a diplomatic coup, especially given Rafsanjani’s reported interest in weakening the post of Supreme Leader. In the past, Khamenei has been more receptive to a deal when he calculated the credit would go to him, although he has acquiesced to Iranian presidents making offers at other times as well.

Zachary Keck serves as assistant editor for The Diplomat.

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