Iran's former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani found himself living the old cliché about revolutions devouring their own children on Tuesday, when a court in Tehran sentenced his daughter to six months in prison for "spreading propaganda" against the regime. The verdict against a highly visible member of the influential Rafsanjani clan longtime kingmakers within Iran's political elite is the latest sign of deepening political strife ahead of parliamentary elections to be held in March.
A former member of parliament turned political activist, Faezeh Hashemi had emerged in recent years as a sharp critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government. While Hashemi isn't a political heavyweight in her own right she is best known as an advocate for women's sports and for flashing Chanel under her traditional black chador she infuriates the regime by championing her father's politics. (Former President Rafsanjani had been Ahmadinejad's nemesis within Tehran's clerically dominated political system. The incumbent effectively ran his re-election campaign in the controversial 2009 poll against Rafsanjani rather than against the rival candidates, backed by the former President, who continued to occupy important clerical positions.) The verdict against Hashemi appears to be based on a recent interview in which she said Iran "was being run by thugs and hooligans."
Hashemi had spent brief spells in detention in the past, and regime-aligned Basij militiamen have harassed her in public. But analysts says the harsh verdict reflects the mounting tensions between rival conservative camps ahead of the March elections, the first major vote Iran will hold since Ahmadinejad's contested 2009 re-election. The regime fears a low turnout would erode its domestic political standing amid mounting fury over the deteriorating economy. Any street unrest would project a divided image of Iran at a sensitive moment, as the country faces a possible oil embargo and trades threats daily with the U.S.
Iranian officials and state media have launched a "readiness" message campaign in preparation for the vote, warning supporters of the opposition Green movement to stay off the streets and reminding Iranians of their duty to the country's "religious democracy." The country's top police commander, Ismail Ahmadi Moghdam, declared this week that military and security forces were prepared to thwart "plans of the enemy" that might seek a repeat of 2009's protests.
With anxiety running high in Tehran over the external pressures, the regime needs a show of unity ahead of the election which may be why it's turning up the heat on Rafsanjani. Once a pillar of the revolutionary establishment, Rafsanjani has seen his political influence wane in recent years, especially after he backed some of the protesters' demands in the 2009 unrest and demanded the release of prisoners. In the aftermath, he lost his longtime position as head of the Assembly of Experts, an appointed clerical body that picks the Supreme Leader and hypothetically has the right to recall the incumbent, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. He was also barred from delivering sermons during Friday prayers at the University of Tehran, the country's most influential political platform. Rafsanjani is also expected to lose his position this year as head of the Expediency Council, another clerical body, which resolves disputes between branches of government. But even in diminished form, Rafsanjani's clout remains considerable. He represents a threat to the facade of unity the regime is trying to present, having begun questioning the fairness of the coming election. Last week the regime shut down Rafsanjani's personal website.
By ratcheting up the pressure on the former President, analysts say, Iran's top leadership hopes to force him to throw his influence behind the parliamentary vote. "The message being sent to Rafsanjani is very clear: Criticize the Ahmadinejad government all you like, but when it comes to core issues of the system, you must be supportive," says Alireza Haghighi, an Iran specialist at the University of Toronto. "The expectation is that he will stand behind the system when it matters."
The March parliamentary vote is expected to be a fierce, if narrow, contest between allies of Ahmadinejad and a coalition of his opponents drawn from the Revolutionary Guard and hard-line clergy loyal to Khamenei. Both camps seek a 30% to 40% share of the seats in parliament, which would enable them to either support or impede the Ahmadinejad government. For the anti-Ahmadinejad camp, the vote will be a key first step in marginalizing the President and shearing his ambitions to retain influence beyond the end of his term.
The country's most prominent reformists are boycotting the vote, and Mehdi Karroubi, a leader of the now quiet Green movement along with Mir-Hossein Moussavi, has said from house arrest that elections will be "dictated and security driven." With no prominent candidates to support and no unified position or leadership to follow, Iran's opposition remains discontent but silent. Rafsanjani had garnered some credibility among Iranians who protested in 2009 but would lose that favor by urging participation in an election the opposition movement considers rigged.
For Rafsanjani, says Jamshid Barzegar, senior Iran analyst at BBC Persian, "the best course is to keep silent." If he backs the vote, he loses credibility among regime critics; if he undermines the election by questioning its fairness, he risks losing his standing within the system altogether. Faezeh Hashemi has 20 days to appeal the verdict against her, and an appeals court would likely review the case on the eve of the March 2 vote, effectively keeping her fate hanging over her father's head until voting day. "The system wants to have Rafsanjani in its camp, but a quiet, passive Rafsanjani," says Barzegar.
The provocations against Rafsanjani continue to escalate. On Tuesday, relatives of his exiled son Mehdi Hashemi had their passports confiscated upon returning to Tehran after visiting him in Dubai. Whether Rafsanjani will respond remains to be seen, but it's clear that Iran's leadership considers him a dangerous wild card in an electoral game that matters vitally.
As Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it: "What remains to be seen is whether Rafsanjani will, for the sake of regime stability, take his grievances with him to his deathbed or whether he will go down fighting. It's difficult for him to disavow a system he helped create."