The tension between the two old friends intensified when Rafsanjani lost the presidential election to Mahmood Ahmadinejad in 2005. He accused Ahmadinejad of electoral fraud and the Revolutionary Guards of illegal intervention, though he did not file a formal complaint.
For Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster.
The incompatible visions of the two ayatollahs finally became conspicuous in the 2009 election. Rafsanjani supported Mir Hossein Moussavi against Ahmadinejad, who accused his rival of being a front man to protect Rafsanjani's economic media. When Moussavi accused Ahmadinejad of stealing the election, millions of people took to the streets and gave birth to the Green Movement. As a result, the government began a crackdown of the Greens. Khamenei sided with Ahmadinejad, rejected the allegation of fraud, and admitted that he was ideologically closer to Ahmadinejad than to Rafsanjani.
In contrast, Rafsanjani called for the release of political prisoners, inclusion of all factions in the political process, national reconciliation, and an end to extremism. He rejected the official narrative that portrayed the Green Movement as an American conspiracy.
Still, they continued to have cordial relations. Khamenei seems to have decided to gradually marginalize Rafsanjani while keeping him within the system. He thus reappointed Rafsanjani to chair the Expediency Council. Meanwhile, his lieutenants joined hands to remove Rafsanjani as chair of the Assembly for Experts for Leadership, which can remove the Supreme Leader and select a new one. Rafsanjani also lost control of the Azad University, with hundreds of thousands of students in hundreds of campuses across the country. His daughter and one of his sons were imprisoned.
Weakened, the pragmatic Rafsanjani continued to praise Khamenei, patiently waiting for an opportune time to reintroduce himself. The 2013 presidential campaign was that occasion.
For Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's presidency has been an unmitigated disaster. He understands that the tension between the country's vibrant and restless civil society and the state could easily explode. He is worried that the country's reckless foreign policy could lead to war or to a gradual suffocation of the country. He knows the status quo is unsustainable.
This is why he declared a few weeks ago that should Ayatollah Khamenei not oppose his candidacy, he would enter the race to reverse the direction the country has taken. He immediately became the target of relentless attacks. The Minister of Intelligence accused him of inciting the June 2009 uprising, and Khamenei's older brother stated that Rafsanjani was the perfect candidate for the American conspiracy to destabilize Iran.
He ignored such criticisms, believing that with the sure support coming from the reformists and the disgruntled electorates, his message of reform and change would lead him electoral victory in the June election. He knew there is an enormously large constituency of voters desperate for reform. He moved to represent that constituency, as Khatami had done eight years earlier. So the Guardian Council disqualified him.
When he was disqualified, a bewildered Rafsanjani did not challenge the decision, although his supporters expressed outrage. No one expressed that anger more eloquently than Ayatollah Khomeini's daughter. She condemned the disqualification of Rafsanjani, and stated that her father believed both Rafsanjani and Khamenei were qualified to become his successor -- a slap in the face for the Guardian Council and Rafsanjani's enemies.
Rafsanjani is more popular today than at anytime in the past two decades. He has the opportunity to become the face of an alternative paradigm of governance. The tragedy is that the Islamic Republic is remarkably resistant to meaningful reforms.
Therefore, the revolution has not yet devoured Rafsanjani. Will he use his new status to try to make the Islamic Republic much less repressive and more accountable, or will he auction it to secure better political positions for himself? The way he handles his new status will determine the legacy of the rest of his life.