Why the Islamic Republic Disqualified One of Its Founding Fathers From Running for President

The rise and fall -- and possible rise again -- of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

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Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot in a parliamentary election, in Tehran, on March 2, 2012. (Reuters)

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is no ordinary ayatollah. One of the principal pillars of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and a founding father of the Islamic Republic, his political biography is intimately intertwined with the history of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, when the 12 unelected men of the Guardian Council, who vetted all candidates, disqualified him from the presidency two weeks ago, a stunned nation wondered if the revolution has devoured one of its fathers, ending the intriguing career of this canny 78-year-old statesman.

The Guardian Council, whose deliberations were secret, reportedly reversed its original decision to allow Rafsanjani to run after the arm-twisting by the Intelligence Minister and the Revolutionary Guards. Rafsanjani's age could not have been a factor for the decision. There are no laws setting age limits, and some council members are older than him. Nor could the Council have disqualified Rafsanjani because of a lack of gravitas. He is former parliament speaker, president, and the current chair of the Expediency Council that resolves the Islamic Republic's internal conflicts.

The Council has apparently disqualified Rafsanjani because they feared he would win the presidency and change the balance of power in the ongoing factional rivalries in the Islamic Republic. The Council, whose members were appointed equally by Supreme Leader Khamenei and the parliament, recognized that Rafsanjani possessed the requisite skills and network to engineer a détente with the West and open up the political process, as he had pledged to do. They feared that he even could challenge the monopoly of power by Khamenei, his conservative supporters and the Revolutionary Guards.

The Democracy ReportThe disqualification decision was a revealing endorsement of the dominant paradigm of governance that is transforming the Islamic Republic into an authoritarian Islamic government. In that system, the government is subservient to the Supreme Leader and people can vote only for the candidates certifiably committed to him. The disqualification also was the rejection of a pledge by Rafsanjani to strengthen the republican tendencies of the Islamic Republic, making it less repressive and more inclusive.

It is ironic that Khamenei and Rafsanjani now represent opposing visions for an order they indefatigably worked to establish. Former students of Ayatollah Khomeini, the two became comrades-in-arms in a small network Khomeini had created in Iran after his exile in 1965. Rafsanjani was much closer to Khomeini and served as his trusted liaison with supporters in Iran.

During Khomeini's rule (1979-89), Rafsanjani was Iran's second most powerful man, while Khamenei was one of the many influential figures. Rafsanjani was speaker of the parliament and, more importantly, Khomeini's main advisor, and he was appointed by his mentor to command the armed forces during the Iraq-Iran war. Although Khamenei served as president, executive power resided with the prime minister.

The two men became political soul mates and allies in the struggle for succession to Ayatollah Khomeini. They had serious disagreements with Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, who was Khomeini's official heir-apparent and was increasingly critical of the government's repressive policies. Montazeri accused Rafsanjani, Khamenei, and a son of Khomeini of staging a coup to remove him from his position in 1989. After Khomeini's death, the Assembly of Experts for Leadership chose Khamenei as the new Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani played a key role in that surprising selection. Shortly thereafter, Rafsanjani was elected president.

During Rafsanjani's presidency (1989-1997), the two men worked collaboratively. Rafsanjani focused on rebuilding Iran's war-devastated economy and moderating Iran's foreign policy. Neither a democrat nor a political saint, he did not open up the repressive system, and was implicated by a German court for the assassination of four Iranian-Kurdish opposition leaders in Germany. Meanwhile, Khamenei, who lacked Khomeini's popularity, charisma and credentials, began to consolidate power, relying increasingly on the Revolutionary Guards. The more he consolidated power, the less he needed Rafsanjani.

Frictions in the relationship between the two surfaced during the presidency of the reform-minded Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). The fear that reforms could destabilize the Islamic Republic and undermine the authority of the Supreme Leader substantially increased the power of the Revolutionary Guards and pushed Khamenei ever closer to them and to the conservative faction that opposed reforms. Although Rafsanjani was generally supportive of reforms, he was deeply mistrusted by many reformists who accused him of creating an economic mafia and corruption. Khamenei and his supporters remained happily silent as Rafsanjani became the symbol of what was most despised about the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani became so unpopular that he failed to win a seat in the parliamentary elections.

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.

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.