Iran: What would a Rafsanjani presidency mean?

Iran’s June 14 presidential election takes place against the background of deep divisions in society and the regime.

The shadow of the brutal suppression of the mass protests against the rigging of the previous, 2009, presidential vote hangs over this election. The fact that four years ago the regime had to wage a long battle to remain in power has both weakened its authority and provoked deep divisions within the ruling elite on how to continue to maintain their control. This is a factor in the open split and conflict between the “winners” of the 2009 conflict, president Ahmadinejad and the “Supreme Leader”, Ayatollah Khamenei.

The crisis is not simply political. The economy is in deep recession with output falling by 4% last year and also suffers from high inflation partly caused by the collapse of the Iranian currency. In part this is a result of the economic sanctions imposed by the Western powers because of Iran’s nuclear programme.

The semi-dictatorial religious dominated regime tries to keep a grip on all elections. The clergy dominated Guardian Council decides which candidates are allowed to stand. In this situation there are some who hope that if former president Rafsanjani is allowed to stand again he could become a rallying point against the “Supreme Leader”. Here an Iranian supporter of the CWI discusses Rafsanjani’s record and the importance for the left to have a sympathetic attitude to those who seek to vote for such an “opposition” candidate while simultaneously striving to build an independent workers’ movement armed with a socialist programme.

Supreme Leader Khamenei, Rafsanjani and justice chief Larijani

Former President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s very last minute decision to try to stand as a candidate in June’s Iranian Presidential election has totally changed the game. This almost 80 year old co-founder of the Islamic regime is supported by moderate forces and also those reformists who want only a partial change of the regime. These forces are both inside the regime and in some parts of the opposition, including the Green Movement which itself is a legacy of the mass opposition to the rigging of the previous, 2009, presidential election.

In the last few days many reformist and Green activists have tried to present Rafsanjani as a “Superman” and somebody who can make a big change in the current situation. They are also hoping that he can bring reformists back to state power after 2009’s controversial election which resulted in them being totally removed from positions of influence within the Islamic regime.

While this election remains only semi-free, with candidates first vetted by the religious leadership and no opportunity for independent working class representation, it is exposing again the divisions and splits amongst Iran’s ruling elite. At the moment, there are three main camps in the election. The first camp is the so-called Principalists, the loyal supporters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei who already have too many candidates. As the election approaches they will cut these down to one or two candidates, probably concentrating around Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. The second camp is an increasingly populist one headed by outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad whose main candidate is Isfandiar Rahim Mashaei, a nationalist who has been the President’s closest ally and right-hand man. The third camp is headed by Rafsanjani who represents a “joint venture” between moderates and reformist groups all together. With less than a month to the election, the reformists are trying to convince the masses that Rafsanjani could make a big difference if he wins the election.

Against a background of a steadily worsening economic and social situation all these groupings fear a renewed mass protest movement. However, in the aftermath of the defeat of the 2009 movement, it is possible that amongst the candidates Rafsanjani will be considered a “lesser evil” by the Guardian Council. This is why it is necessary to try to analyse the scenario that could develop if Rafsanjani takes the office after the upcoming election. This includes attempting to address what actually could be his capabilities as a President in terms of delivering change in the society. And finally we ask whether the Iranian people, and especially the working class, could benefit from Rafsanjani’s policies?

Economic changes

The economy seems to be one of the very few areas that reformists could intervene and carry out their policies. However even this field is not free from the challenges from the forces supporting the Supreme Leader Khamenei’s rule, especially the leaders of the so-called Revolutionary Guards. Rafsanjani was one of the key people who brought the Revolutionary Guards into the economic field in late 1980s after the Iran-Iraq war. Since then, the Revolutionary Guards leaders have been active in many key industries. In last 25 years they have effectively formed their own mafia and breaking into this area will not be an easy task for new rivals. Only few weeks ago Rafsanjani said “the Revolutionary Guards will not be satisfied by anything but the whole country”. The pro-market reformists’ aim of breaking the Guards’ economic grip will not be very easy, especially because the economic liberalisation they preach will hit the living standards of many.

Rafsanjani’s policies are not in the interests of working people, actually he is the representative of one of the most right-wing economic agendas in Iranian post-revolutionary history. He and his family are also widely known for financial fraud and corruption. During his previous two terms as President between 1989 and 1997 Rafsanjani attempted to begin so-called “liberalisation” policies of mass privatisation, austerity, imposing cuts and huge inflation. This was a key reason why Rafsanjani’s previous attempt at a comeback failed when he was heavily defeated by Ahmadinejad’s populist campaign in the 2005 presidential election.

Rafsanjani represents an anti-working class force which focuses on a smaller economic role for the state, more privatisation, a free market economy and more investment in private sectors. People who lived during his first two terms as President can still remember the astronomical inflation his policies caused along with a high unemployment rate, both consequences of his economic policies. If sections of the working class in Iran have any hopes that by simply electing Rafsanjani they can change their already poor living standards, events will force them to think again.

Iranian nuclear issue

In terms of foreign policy, the main issue is Iran’s nuclear programme, which contains the danger of military action and, possibly later, even war. The defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Western-backed war on Iran by 1988 and, later, the US-British invasion of Iraq, strengthened Iran’s regional position. This is one reason why the world powers, again led by the US and Britain, are using the nuclear issue as a justification for seeking to undermine the current regime. Sanctions have directly affected Iranian people’s lives, rather than seriously affecting the tops of the regime. A resolution of the nuclear issue one way or another that led to a lifting of sanctions could put Iran in a better position, decreasing the level of tension and pressure caused mainly by Western powers’ attempt to impose their will.

However, in the current set-up any change in the Iranian nuclear programme is a decision which can be made only by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. In other words, regardless of whether the president is a reformist or a loyal conservative (Principlist) towards Khamenei, the president is not the person who makes such high level decisions. As with all other key questions, decisive change will only come about by challenging the power of the regime. Even just a change of policy could mean a battle against the clique around Khamenei, but rival members of the elite like Rafsanjani are reluctant to directly challenge Khamenei as they fear of stimulating wider, popular movements that they could not control.


The sanctions imposed on Iran as a direct consequence of Iran’s position on its nuclear programme have dramatically affected millions of poor people’s lives in the last few years. The collapse of the Rial’s (Iranian currency) value over the last year, together with the dreadful inflation of around 30%, has pushed millions of people’s lives into an extremely difficult situation.

Over a few months the prices of vital necessities (like housing, transport, petrol, rice, meat and bread) have rocketed, some have more than doubled, while there is no considerable rise in working peoples’ wages. Millions of Iranians are facing the impact of business insolvencies. There is also a shortage of medicine as the direct result of the sanctions. It is not the government, but the ordinary people who are paying the price of sanctions and this is the background to a recent increase in workers’ struggles.

Freedom and human rights

Many reformists and Green supporters argue that a Rafsanjani victory can open up the political atmosphere and provide more room for opposition to develop. Obviously, their meaning of opposition is only the Green activists who are (or have been) part of Islamic regime while socialists, secular and worker activists are excluded from this kind of “opposition”. They also argue that Rafsanjani could end the jailing of Green movement leaders like the 2009 presidential candidates Mousavi and Karroubi along with other political prisoners.

However this rather simplistic argument ignores the lessons of the 1997-2005 “reformist” Khatami presidency that election victories, on their own, do not automatically result in fundamental change, particularly in today’s Iran where large sections of the state machine are under the control of the unelected Supreme Leader.

Just examining how to win some of the ‘simplest’ reforms makes clear that their implementation means challenging the religious elite:

  • Formally any decision for the release of political prisoners should come from the Judicial System of Iran which is meant to be totally independent of the President. The head of the Judicial System – Sadeq Larijani – (who is appointed directly by Ali Khamenei), is one of the hardline followers of the Supreme Leader and release of prisoners would happen without his approval. The idea that Ali Khamenei will approve the release of political prisoners (including Green movement leaders) simply for the reason that a reformist has become the president seems quite unlikely.
  • Many reformist parties and organisations have been banned after the 2009 elections and their leaders were either imprisoned or chose to live in exile. The issue of whether another Rafsanjani presidency could result in the re-opening of these organisations and calling back of all activists to Iran is a question that reformists do not answer. They do not explain why, this time around, simply electing Rafsanjani to the presidency would bring such changes. In addition it should be remembered that these recently banned groups are not Socialist or secular organisations or anything fundamentally outside of the Islamic regime’s tight, rigid framework. Many of the parties banned after 2009 had always been part of the Islamic Regime and helped built this system.
  • In terms of freedom of the press, a reformist president could not substantially change anything without challenging the rest of the regime. The Head of State Media is directly appointed by Supreme Leader. Furthermore, there is heavy filtering of the internet by Iranian Cyber Police whose control is also out of the President’s hands. Plus there is solid censorship of the press. For example Ahmadinejad’s press advisor and the Managing Director of IRNA (Islamic Republic News Agency) was jailed for "publishing materials contrary to Islamic norms". If one of Ahmadinejad’s close allies is not immune, then it is very questionable whether the reformists could do anything special when they are in a much weaker position in relation to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
  • Finally a quick reminder of the limits of a change purely at the top was shown more than 12 years ago under Khatami’s presidency, when reformists had the power and control in both the administration and parliament, but backed away from passing a resolution for freedom of the press simply because Khamenei sent a letter warning them not to go ahead. They immediately called the issue off on the very day it was due to be voted upon in the parliament!

Those who suppose Rafsanjani will open up the political scene and resolve human rights issues have to face the bitter truth of his legacy. He is one of the key figures involved in the massacres of Iranian opposition political activists in the 1980s which led to the killing of more than fifteen thousand political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

Later in the 1990s Rafsanjani, then working with Khamenei, was one of main people backing a criminal project called the “Chain Murders” which was directed and led by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence. In that project, partly aimed at destabilising the then “reformist” president Khatami, tens of political activists were kidnapped and brutally murdered between 1988 and 1998. Also, Rafsanjani was behind many terrorist operations the Islamic Regime carried out abroad against the Iranian opposition, including the 1992 Mykonos restaurant assassinations in Berlin. Expecting such a person to resolve human right issues seems, to say the least, ambitious.

Who benefits from Rafsanjani’s candidacy?

The Supreme Leader’s main priority is not an election with a maximum turnout, but a quiet election without controversy that ensures the future President will be 100% his own man. Khamenei’s main concern is to avoid repeating the mass anti-regime demonstrations resulting from the rigging of the June 2009 elections that put his power under huge pressure for over 10 months. All the leaders of the different factions of the elite fear another mass movement, but the splits and tensions between them represent the clash of views amongst them over how to prevent another revolt. Some want to hang onto the status quo, while others advocate making some limited reforms from above to prevent revolution from below.

However, having candidates like Rafsanjani (and also even Ahmadinejad’s nominee Mashaei) in this election could present the idea that there is a real “choice” between different forces. This also could attract many so-called “protest voters” to vote against whoever they assume to be the Supreme Leader’s favourite candidate. This “Lesser Evil” tactic is what reformists and the remaining Green activists are banking on. In the run-up to the election, they are hoping to attract the vote of many people who intended to boycott the election. Candidates like Rafsanjani could be able to maximise the turnout and thereby gain some legitimacy and validity for the Islamic regime’s election. It also could create an illusion amongst the population that solutions can be achieved inside the regime’s structures, dissuading them from building their own alternatives through direct action against the regime.

Socialists cannot endorse any of the candidates in this election. However, we understand why some layers of Iranian society will vote against the Supreme Leader by choosing a so-called opposition candidate (in this case Rafsanjani or Mashaei). People who still think voting in this regime’s election can bring change to their lives should not be condemned. We also encourage any debate on this issue. But simultaneously we also would question what level of changes the reformists could bring for them and what kind of improvements they can bring to the masses’ living standards, stressing the need for working people to rely on their own strength and to build their own independent movement to secure real, socialist change.

Neither Rafsanjani nor any forces inside the Islamic Republic have any solution. However, this is not a circus between different forces inside the regime. This is a real battle, but not one for progress or democracy. The main protagonists are different parts of a corrupt and reactionary capitalist regime. However these splits in the ruling elite can open the way to new upheavals. It is not clear how Ahmadinejad would react to the exclusion of his favoured candidate from the election. Another rigged election would drive home the lesson, re-enforced by the “Arab Spring”, that the working masses have themselves to struggle against oppression. An election result that is seen as a defeat for the Supreme Leader could encourage further struggles from below, and the victor, probably Rafsanjani, would soon be put to the test. All these developments are preparing the ground for a rebirth of the workers’ movement. For this to be successful it needs to be independent, not bound to any battle within the regime, and with a socialist programme that takes account of the lessons of the past.

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