Rafsanjani Raises Hopes for a Compromise in Iran

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Atta Kenare / AFP / Getty

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivers a speech during a meeting of the top clerical body in Tehran on Feb. 23, 2010

In the ongoing tumult of Iranian politics, Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has made few public pronouncements — even though he is said to be the main guiding force behind the scenes for those in the regime who are opposed to the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, and President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But on Tuesday, Rafsanjani, looking fatigued and thinner than in recent months, made a rare semi-public speech, covered in part by Iran's official television news. Ostensibly, he called for harmony and promoted unity — notions that probably do not sit well with the activist elements of the protest movement that has shaken Iran since the controversial re-election of Ahmadinejad last June. But Rafsanjani also pointed out the divisions within the society and the need to not only acknowledge but compromise on some of those differences — an idea that his conservative compatriots in the theocracy are loath to consider.

Rafsanjani spoke at the semi-annual meeting of the Assembly of Experts, which he heads. The group, an elected body comprised of 86 clerics, most of them well into senior citizenship, is tasked with, among other things, overseeing the actions of the Supreme Leader, though it has never used that power. Referring to the post-election turmoil, Rafsanjani took no clear sides but made a rare acknowledgment of wrongdoing by regime forces, stating that "unfortunate incidents occurred that were unprecedented in our country, and these incidents caused disputes and in some instances hostilities, and events took place that no Muslim heart could accept. The families of both protesters and officers were harmed, and one must sympathize with and tend to them all."

Being equivocal has served Rafsanjani well in the past — and his words this time once again led to speculation that an attempt at political compromise may be afoot between the two warring halves of the regime. "I have no doubt that those who believe in the articles of the constitution want to respect its boundaries," he declared in a barely veiled reference to the opposition. None of the leaders of the reformist opposition — Ahmadinejad's two rivals in the polls, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, and former President Mohammed Khatami — have called for the abolition of the republic. They have in fact framed their protests as part of the legacy of the Islamic revolution's founding father, the late Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Part of Rafsanjani's effectiveness is the system's inability to marginalize or radicalize him. Nevertheless, the past several months have been trying ones for the 75-year-old, one of the richest men in the country and one of the Islamic Republic's most powerful players since its inception 31 years ago. He and his family vocally opposed the re-election of Ahmadinejad. His daughter Faezeh has spent time in jail; his son Mehdi, who is currently outside of Iran, will potentially be subject to arrest if he returns. Rafsanjani, who was President of Iran for two terms ending in 1997, lost to Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race. In the months since the street protests blossomed, there has been wide speculation of private spats between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who is Ahmadinejad's chief patron and guarantor of power.

The speech before the Assembly, therefore, shores up Rafsanjani's position as a patriot and revolutionary at a critical time. Iran sees new threats from the West, both economically and militarily. In his address, Rafsanjani referred to America's "unprecedented presence in the region" and how it was meant "to exert pressure on the Islamic Republic," citing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's accusation that Iran was turning into a "military dictatorship" as part of some Washington plan of intimidation. In that context, Rafsanjani's words made it clear that he (and, by extension, those he sympathizes with) believes the survival of the theocracy he helped established trumps the country's internal struggles. He carefully distinguished between those who are trying to topple the regime and those who are seeking to reform it, saying, "There is a line between the loyalists to the establishment and those seeking to set new precedents, who have problems with the constitution and the leadership. This border is not a fake one, and we must not allow it to be tampered with."

The opposition may want to test the government further, however. Talk on the street is that the next opportunity for protests may come with an ancient Zoroastrian fire festival that takes place in mid-March, just before the Persian New Year, around the start of spring. Meanwhile, opposition websites and social-media channels cited a meeting between Mousavi and Karroubi this week that had Karroubi calling for a referendum on the popularity of Ahmadinejad's government. But that muffled noise is all that can be mustered nowadays. Speaking via official media, Rafsanjani may be signaling, louder than he has since the crisis began, that the time for squabbling should come to an end with some kind of compromise so that a united Iran can resolve its many other serious challenges. Whether his hard-line rivals in the regime will actually listen to him is another question.