Can Rouhani fill Rafsanjani’s shoes?

Can Rouhani fill Rafsanjani’s shoes?
The majority of analysts in Iran maintain that the death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former pragmatist president (1989-1997), will create a leadership vacuum in the moderate/reformist movement. The person who currently can fill this vacuum, they assert, is Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, a loyal disciple of Rafsanjani. But can he?

In 2009, when massive street protests broke out in the aftermath of the disputed presidential elections, the moderates and reformists joined forces in an unofficial unity, and the fault lines between them became blurred.

After former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the leading figure of the reform movement, was silenced following the 2009 upheaval — accused of “sedition”, as conservatives put it — Rafsanjani played a major role in establishing and maintaining the current “moderation movement.” The movement has been locked in a fierce struggle with the hardline current since. It was from that point on that he, as a supporter of the so-called Green Movement, openly clashed with Iran’s leader.

Interestingly, there was no tolerance for the opposition during Rafsanjani’s presidency. Dissent was crushed and human rights violations abounded. Fast forward to 20 years later, to January 9, 2017 when millions of mourners poured onto the streets of Tehran to pay tribute to Rafsanjani, who led the second wave of domestic opposition following the emergence of the reformist movement in 1997. The movement advocates political openness, interaction with the West (including the United States), and, more importantly, politically challenges conservatism.

The funeral was said to be the biggest crowd to pay tribute to a political figure since the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, in 1989.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, views the dominance of that school of thought in Iran as the death of the Islamic Revolution, which he is the guardian of. Khamenei became even more openly at odds with Rafsanjani since the election of the centrist Rouhani — Rafsanjani’s confidante — in 2013.

However, it was the realisation of the Iran nuclear deal that took tensions between Rafsanjani and the supreme leader to new heights. There were three reasons for that.

Firstly, Khamenei, who was thought to have spearheaded the decades-long resistance against the US, suddenly endorsed a deal with “the enemy” in 2015. The conservatives in Iran had a hard time digesting the move. To prevent the acceptance of the nuclear deal from being interpreted as a surrender to the US and to maintain the fault lines between his school of thought and Rafsanjani’s as clear as possible, Khamenei frequently fiercely criticised those who not only characterised the nuclear deal as “God’s blessing” but advocated the normalisation of relations with America.

Secondly, Iran’s leader wanted to neutralise the immense support for the movement that emerged following the materialisation of the nuclear deal and the rising popularity of Rafsanjani and Rouhani. As such, the more Rafsanjani wanted to portray the deal as a glaring victory for his camp, Ayatollah Khamenei sought to downplay its importance.

Thirdly, Khamenei genuinely feared that moderates, building on the nuclear deal, would start the process of normalising relations with the US. Two months after the nuclear deal was signed, Rouhani asserted in a speech in New York that “But for us to think that until the end of the world this animosity and tension between, and lack of relations between, the two countries will continue, that is an impossibility.”

By openly criticising Rafsanjani’s school of thought, the Ayatollah intended to put the moderates on the defensive and thus thwart what he called an American plan to “infiltrate” — a term he has frequently used since the nuclear accord was signed — Iran’s politics and economy.

Given Rafsanjani’s passing, and considering that reformist Khatami has been muted, with Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and a notable figure in the moderate current, considered too young to take charge, the only person who can fill the leadership vacuum is Rouhani.

Over the last four years, Rouhani has shown the courage and determination to confront the hardliners. On numerous occasions, he has severely criticised the powerful hardline military force of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), an organisation that hardly anyone in Iran dares to criticise.

In a clear reference to the IRGC, Rouhani once remarked, “If guns, money, newspapers and propaganda all gather in one place, one can be confident of corruption there. Even Abuzar and Salman would have become corrupt under one organisation that accumulated everything.”

Rouhani will most likely be elected again in the spring presidential elections. Undoubtedly, as his records show, he will continue the struggle against the hardliners. He has no other option. Otherwise, he would not be able to run the country. He will not directly clash with the leader but will not shy away from challenging individuals and institutions related to the leader either. Therefore, it is safe to say that he can emerge as the leader of the moderate movement.

But two caveats must be considered.

First, Donald Trump can ruin Rouhani. There are indications that Trump has decided to adopt a more confrontational approach regarding US-Iran relations. But Trump’s wishes — to either shred the nuclear deal or renegotiate it — are likely harder to achieve than he may think. Europeans have already begun investing billions of dollars in Iran. They will unlikely cooperate with Trump.

However, Trump has said that he will “police that contract so tough they don’t have a chance.” This approach can potentially lead to either Americans finding a pretext to abandon the deal unilaterally or prompt an Iranian walk back. Iran hawks in Washington, including the Israel lobby and the hostile Congress to the Iranian establishment, will laud Trump and support him all the way in imposing new sanctions.

Such an eventuality would paralyse Rouhani and create a space for the hardliners to completely marginalise Rouhani and his team and, in practical terms, take the affairs of the country in their own hands, albeit with the support of Ayatollah Khamenei.

Moreover, even if in all unlikelihood the conflict with the US were not elevated to the point that could neutralise Rouhani’s presence in Iran’s politics, it is hard to assume that after the termination of his second term Rouhani could officially stay relevant in Iran’s politics as Rafsanjani did. In the best case scenario, Rouhani will be limited in his political activities. In the worst case scenario, he will be completely silenced as Khatami has.

But would that mean the death of the movement? No. The backbone of the movement that supports moderation/reform in Iran is formed by the middle- and upper-middle class urbanites. They shape the dominating force in the social networks in Iran. They registered spectacular success during the election of Rouhani in 2013 as well as the 2016 parliamentary elections.

Following his election, Rouhani explained social networks’ role in his victory as undeniable, and appreciated his supporters for promoting his campaign on those platforms.

Simply put, even if Rouhani would be unable to lead the movement, the movement will survive in a leaderless state thanks to the social networks.

Leader or no leader, this current can certainly impact the elections in the foreseeable future.

Shahir ShahidSaless (Gulf News)

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