In Parts 1 and 2 of our Iran’s Power Brokers series we covered the Supreme Leaders, Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. Part 3 covers a man named Hashemi Rafsanjani, also aptly referred to by many as Kouseh, Shark in Farsi (Persian). This is not an exhaustive account of all of Rafsanjani’s actions during the span of the Islamic Republic’s 30 years worth of horrific rule over Iran, but I hope to capture the essence of who the man is in this article.

Rafsanjani has been one of the central players in the Islamic Republic of Iran since its founding, and has had a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with the current Supreme Leader, Khamenei since the early days. Ironically, he is one of the key people responsible for the promotion of Khamenei to the position of Supreme Leader after the death of Khomeini. The irony lies in the fact that ever since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “defeated” Rafsanjani during the 2005 presidential elections, Khamenei has looked the other way (to say the least) as Ahmadinejad, and forces loyal to him within the maze of power structures that is the Islamic Republic, have systematically undermined Rafsanjani. The culmination of this was during the brief but dramatic run-up to the June 12, 2009 presidential elections, which ended in a rigged victory for Ahmadinejad and led to a widespread, popular protest and uprising in Iran that has continued to this day (and is far from over). While it was well-known by Iran watchers that there was no love lost between Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, it became a public spat when, during unprecedented televised debates between Ahmadinejad and his primary challenger, Mir Hussein Mousavi (a reformist and ally of former President Khatami), Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani and his family of corruption.

Rafsanjani was incensed by the accusations. They are probably true, as corruption runs rampant in the Islamic Republic, but the corruption itself is actually not very relevant. Everyone knows that most of the power players in the system engage in corrupt practices of all kinds. What is relevant is that when Rafsanjani publicly asked Khamenei to get Ahmadinejad to retract his accusations, Khamenei ignored him.

Sine the June 12 elections a power struggle has been playing out in Iran, both in the circles of the so-called elite (the politicians, clerics and various elements of the IRGC) and on the streets, where the people have repeatedly poured out in the millions to express their discontent over a both the rigging of the elections and the system that for thirty years has enslaved and abused them.

Rafsanjani has been playing the game cautiously. On the one hand, as a founding member of the establishment, he has huge vested interests in keeping the Islamic Republic system intact. But on the other hand, his years of Machiavellian politicking, conniving, and hoarding of wealth have left him vulnerable to the likes of Ahmadinejad and his cabal of supporters, including a shadowy cleric by the name of Mesbah Yazdi, rumored to be the head of an even more shadowy, cult-like group called the Hojjatieh. The Hojjatieh believe that the end days are near, and that soon the hidden, twelfth Imam will show up to lead all true believers of Islam to victory in a war against infidels. Let’s just say they are an unsavory bunch, and they are jockeying for power. Ahmadinejad is their man. It is likely that one of their goals is to get one of their own into the position of Supreme Leader. As Chair of the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani is positioned to be a huge thorn in their side when the time comes to replace Khamenei with a new leader. They also don’t like the fact that he backed Mousavi in the recent elections. So Rafsanjani is in trouble because, at least for now Khamenei is siding with Ahmadinejad, and the IRGC (the Islamic Republican Guard Corps) is backing this alliance.

How things play out remains to be seen, but Rafsanjani’s influence relies heavily on his ability to maneuver in a way that helps lead to the neutralization of Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the IRGC, without letting the system collapse completely, or alter to the point where he will have to account for his nefarious activities for the past 30 years.

As of this writing, the latest information regarding Rafsanjani is that he was slated to hold next week’s Friday Prayers Sermon, on September the 18. This day is also called Qods Day by the regime, a day designated by Khamenei for solidarity with the Palestinians. For years now, the regime has encouraged people to use this day to be out in the streets in support of the Palestinian cause. The Green Movement (a people’s movement that started just prior to the June 12 elections in support of Mousavi and that has now metastasized into a movement completely opposed to the existing order) plans to use this opportunity to continue their protests. The following was just posted on Zahra Rahnavard’s (Mousavi’s wife’s) Facebook page at today approximately 5:35pm Eastern Time:

Zahra Rahnavard زهرا رهنورد Protests reached the heavily controlled city of Qom. Despite intense security measures in the holy city of Qom, people gathered in front of Grand Ayatollah Saneei’s office last night after his strong speech for the Qadr night ceremony and showed their protest to the current events. They were chanting “death to the dictator” and “Coup administration, resign, resign”, “We will meet on Qods Day”.

We will meet on Qods Day. Strong words. This is going to be a very important day for Iran in the post-rigged-election aftermath.

Rafsanjani has already held one friday prayer sermon since the election, and it was cautiously supportive of the people and critical of the crackdown and repression. Since then, various members in the green camp, Karoubi being the most vocal, have sought to hold the regime accountable for the atrocities that have been committed. Karoubi has provided evidence of wholesale rape to the establishment, and has stood firm against various lies and accusations from the regime. There are rumors that the regime has had enough and that Khamenei has issued the warrant for Karoubi’s arrest. The crackdown is starting to reach the establishment opposition figures now. Karoubi, Mousavi, former President Khatami and even Rafsanjani are all vulnerable (some of them more than others). The regime has yet to arrest any of them, probably out of fear of the reaction from the public, but they are trying to slowly bring to boil the proverbial frog in the pot, so that it won’t try to jump out. Rafsanjani, if he does end up being the friday prayers leader next week, will be making one of the most important public appearances in his life. The stakes are very high. He has already triangulated with Khamenei to a certain extent when, several weeks after his first post-election friday prayers, he said that everyone should follow the “Leader”, meaning Khamenei. But since then, a lot has changed. Now that the reformist leaders are on the verge of possible arrest, it is not clear whether Rafsanjani will continue to lend his political weight to Khamenei, or tip his weight in favour of the reformists, or take some alternative route. They don’t call him the Shark for nothing. In any case, he may not be speaking next Friday, if the report from Raja News that Rafsanjani will not be leading friday prayers is correct. This has apparently been denied by Rafsanjani.

Who is Rafsanjani anyway?

A lot of hope has been placed in the shark in recent days. It is therefore very important to try to understand him. A book that I have found to be an absolute required read for anyone interested in what is happening in Iran is the insightful book by Carole Jerome (former CBC correspondent that covered the 1979 revolution extensively) called The Man in the Mirror. I have turned to it time and again when I wanted to get some background into the current players in Iran because Ms. Jerome had first-count insider knowledge via her relationship with the Islamic Republic’s first foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh. And it was written in 1987, one year before Khamenei was anointed as the new Supreme Leader. Her observations about the nature of the regime and her predictions on how things were slated to unfold have proven to be very prescient. In her book the first mention of Rafsanjani is in the following paragraphs in the Introduction:

The portrait given here of the inside of the revolution and the regime now in power in Iran should also cast an interesting light on the affair that became known as Iranscam, or the Iran-Contra Affair. When men associated with the Reagan administration were found to have been supplying arms to Iran, they said they were for better or worse trying to support moderate elements they had contacted in Iran through Israeli sources. It is clear from the information in this book that the moderates are dead or in exile, or, like Bazargan [an important political figure in the early days of the revolution], in no position to arrange arms deals. It has also become clear that the Americans in question were in fact dealing with Rafsanjani, allies of his in the Prime Minister’s office, and agents such as Sadegh Tabatabai. It is also clear in this book that these men are not moderate in any sense of the word, but are ruthless, treacherous and are at the heart of the oppressive regime in power. It has always beenunclear how supplies of arms to maintain a war with Iraq–that all real moderates want ended–was to help “moderates.”

The Shark likes to swim in infested waters it seems. He was involved in Iran-Contra, dealing with the Americans and also the Israelis while at the same time breaking bread with the likes of Khomeini and Khamenei. In Iran this is no small feat.

Notice that Jerome does not mince words here. She throws Rafsanjani in with men who are ruthless, treacherous and … at the heart of the oppressive regime in power.

This next excerpt I think not only gives us insight into Rafsanjani, his personality and actions in the early days of the 1979 revolution. The setting is the very early 1980s as the revolution was starting to set in, and the Islamic Republic party was consolidating power:

The semicircular rows of the parliament were filled with turbans. Looking down on them from the gallery above I was seized by the unworthy thought that they [the mullahs in the chamber] all looked like so many cowpats. Directly ahead was Hojatoleslam Hashemi Rafsanjani, now speaker of the parliament. He presided over the proceedings from his desk high on the front podium. Rafsanjani was middle-aged, a big pudgy, and wore his hair in a distinctive fringed style sticking out of his turban. He seemed like a roly-poly schoolboy, as he was the only beardless mullah in sight. They called him the Kouseh, the Shark, because his cheeks were soft and strangely hairless. Rafsanjani was originally named Ali Akbar Bahrami. He had taken the name of his native village, Rafsanjan, where his family had amassed a fortune by cornering the pitachio market.

Before the revolution, Rafsanjani had distinguished himself as a liberal thinker and Islamic Revolutionary. He had even written a book on Amir Kabir, who was prime minister under Nasr e Din Shah. Now Rafsanjani wielded the power of the shahs, along with Beheshti and the other doyens of the IRP.

When I met the Shark later that day, he ws inscrutable, saurian. It was a classic banal interview, a game of political hide and journalistic seek, held in his tastefully handsome office in the parliament building.

I was sharing the Shark with Mike Wallace and his crew from CBS’s 60 Minutes. The 60 Minutes crew had just arrived in Iran, and Mike was in effect the first direct contact between Iran and the United States since the severing of diplomatic relations and the subsequent lockout of American journalists.

During my par of the interview Rafsanjani spent most of his energy making a play for my beautiful Iranian translator, concentrating on flirtatious asides to her while giving me evasive answers. He even went so far as to remove his cloak and sit with his chest partly exposed in the clerical equivalent of beefcake. But for the first time, when he talked with Mike, Rafsanjani had toned down his rhetoric and was sounding conciliatory, leaving doors open for a graceful way out of the hostage crisis.

My translator listened with horror as Mike’s interpreter re-created every sentence, giving it a hard edge. Wallace grew ever angrier while Rafsanjani looked bewildered. Eventually we interrupted and explained the problem to the CBS producer. Inaccurate translation by unprofessional translators was a constant hazard of reporting in a delicate situation. But translation aside, Rafsanjani’s conciliatory attitude did seem to indicate a new rift, this time within the IRP [Islamic Republic Party].

None of this, of course meant that Rafsanjani was either liberal or moderate. As I watched his calculated manner, it was easy to remember that he had been the Interior Minister who presided over the first exceses of the revolution, that it had been he who helped Khoapahani, Ahmad [Khomeini’s son] and Khoeni’a undermine Sadegh [the moderate foreign minister at the time who wanted to free the hostages] … that Rafsanjani rivalled Beheshti for ruthlessness.

Jerome is referring to Ayatollah Mohamad Beheshti, whose son has now been detained by the current Khamenei-Ahmadinejad-IRGC cabal in power. It is interesting indeed to see how nearly 30 years after the events that Jerome describes in her book, the regime in power is devouring the early revolutionaries, including the children of those revolutionaries. The ruthless being dealt with ruthlessly by the even more ruthless.

Jerome continues with by telling of the rivalry between Rafsanjani and Khamenei, giving prescient insight into what is happening today between the two, as well as the geopolitics in the background of it all:

In fact, there were now several rival clerical leaders. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (a lot of them, like him, were not really ayatollahs but had accorded each other the title after the revolution) had from the beginning been a founding power of the IRP and now began to emerge in his own right. A thin, ascetic looking man with a fierce mien, Khamenei was a righteous zealot who … combined religious zeal with a puritanical devotion to some of the principles he had learned in early days in school in Moscow. It was an odd, powerful mix. Khamenei hated Sadegh [the foreign minister] with a visceral passion, both politically and personally. “Why have we not executed this vile fornicator?” he raved one night at a meeting of clerical allies. An article had appeared in Beheshti’s newspaper linking [Sadegh] to a western female named Jerome.

Rafsanjani’s enmity was cooler, calculated. If Khamenei and his lot were closer to Moscow, Rafsanjani was willing to deal with the Americans, the alternate route to power over his rivals. He would use the Americans as treacherously as the shark he was.

Khamenei = Moscow’s man. Remember that. He gets considerable political power from his alliance with Moscow (currently in the personage of Vladimir Putin, who has flown to Iran to meet with Khamenei). George Bush helped to push Iran further under the umbrella of Russian influence. It would do Obama well to understand this. And this explains why just yesterday the Russians said that they would not support further sanctions against Iran for their nuclear program, as this AFP article reports: Putin: Russia opposes force, sanctions on Iran.

Hopefully the Americans know this, and perhaps this is why they have called Iran’s bluff and accepted the Iranian regime’s counter-proposal to the American proposal for talks in which the regime said it was ready to hold “comprehensive and constructive negotiations”, while at the same time saying that the nuclear file was non-negotiable. Read this BBC article: US open to Iran’s offer of talks. Perhaps Obama is calculating that in order to pull Iran from the clutches of Russia he has to talk to the regime, despite the fact that the stability of the regime is by no means certain. It may even be wishful thinking to suggest that possibly Obama sees that if the U.S. can have some kind of a relationship with Iran in which it can exert some kind of influence, then Iran will not remain as firmly in the Russian camp as it is right now, thereby weakening Khamenei. He may be taking a calculated risk that works in the interests of the U.S. regardless of whether the KhamCo cabal talks to him. If Khamenei accepts the offer of talks, this will help the reformists and the Green Movement while seeming to throw a life-line to the regime. It will help the movement if Khamenei is willing to talk because he will have to moderate his stance towards the U.S. and this will have a trickle-down effect in the entire system that could eventually undermine Khamenei and empower the likes of Rafsanjani who has always wanted relations with the U.S. If Khamenei pulls back from the offer of talks with the U.S. (which is what he will likely do) then he will continue down the path of digging his own grave that he has been walking since he called Mousavi’s and by extension the Iranian people’s dispute over the fraudulent election an attempt at starting a velvet revolution. He will have no choice but to continue his crackdown on dissent, leading to further protests and potential revolts. Either way, Khamenei is probably not getting much sleep, and for that we should all be happy.

While the Shark has to walk (swim?) a fine line to get out without being eaten himself, the quandary that Khamenei has created for himself leaves some room in the murky black waters of the Islamic Republic for Rafsanjani to maneuver. On Qods day we will see whether KhamCo can successfully muzzle the Shark…

While the Green Movement can’t count on Rafsanjani to support them unconditionally (far from it in fact), the situation has some light at the end of the tunnel in that Rafsanjani is likely seething with anger at how Khamenei is handling things. His interests will be aligned with those of the Green Movement insofar as sharing the goal of neutering Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the IRGC, but they will likely diverge when this is accomplished. The people want freedom. Rafsanjani wants a comfortable life for Rafsanjani and family. Rafsanjani, a founding member of the Islamic Republic, will do whatever he can to replace the current murderous, ruthless religious zealots in power with his own ruthless, maybe slightly less zealous people. The Green Movement would do well to keep a wary eye on Shark, no matter what happens. Sharks continually replenish their teeth.