By Robin Wright and Garrett Nada
Among the 680-plus candidates who registered to run for president of Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani stands alone as the most experienced and savviest politico — by far. He has almost done it all.
He was speaker of parliament for nine terms in the 1980s. He was president for two terms from 1989 to 1997. He was chairman of the Assembly of Experts, a panel of more than 80 clerics and scholars who oversee the supreme leader, from 2007 to 2011. And he is currently chief of the Expediency Council, the ultimate arbiter of disputes between parliament and the 12-man Guardian Council.
But more than titles, Rafsanjani was long the behind-the-scene powerbroker in the world’s only modern theocracy. He orchestrated the rewriting of the constitution in 1989 to create an executive president — and then got himself elected to the more powerful post. The same year, he mobilized the inner circle after the death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini to support Ali Khamenei as the new supreme leader. The twin steps are still the biggest political overhaul since the 1979 revolution.
For his wiliness, Rafsanjani was nicknamed “the shark,” which is also a play on his smooth beardless chin, a physical attribute inherited from Mongolian ancestors. He was also — somewhat cynically — nicknamed “Akbar Shah,” a dig at the king-like power he once wielded. His Cheshire cat grin was a staple of Iranian politics in the 1980s and 1990s — and a barometer of who and what was in favor.
Yet Rafsanjani has struggled since 2000 to retain his leverage. Subsequent comeback efforts have failed.
His famous family has also increasingly been targeted by both the regime and his political rivals. Two of his children were charged with acting against the regime after the disputed 2009 presidential election. His daughter Faezeh Hashemi ― a former member of parliament and vice president of Iran’s Olympic committee ― spent six months in prison for “spreading propaganda.” She was released in March 2013. His son, Mehdi Hashemi was jailed for more than two months in late 2012 for inciting unrest and still faces formal prosecution.
What is Rafsanjani’s relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei?
How is Mashaei perceived among Iran’s political elite?
He has also sparked controversies over statements about everything from Biblical history to foreign affairs. If the Prophet Noah “had had good managerial skills, other prophets would not have appeared after him,” he reportedly said. He also pronounced, “Without Iran, Islam would be lost.” On current events, he once said, “Iranians are friends of Israelis.”
His daring comments and actions have pushed the envelope of the Islamic Republic’s officially sanctioned values. Many clerics consider his remarks on religious affairs to be encroaching on their territory and dismissing them as uninformed or even heretical.
Even fervent supporters of Ahmadinejad have criticized Mashaei. Hardline cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi branded Mashaei’s statements “erroneous and inappropriate.” In 2009, the supreme leader’s representative on the hardline newspaper Keyhan accused Mashaei of being an agent of the “velvet revolution.” General Hassan Firouzabadi, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, denounced Mashaei’s remarks as a “deviation” that undermined national security and against the principles of the Islamic Republic.
In 1984, Mashaei joined the Intelligence Ministry in Kurdistan, where he met Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then governor of the northwestern city of Khoy. The two men developed a close friendship that has endured almost three decades.
In 1986, Mashaei was appointed director of an Intelligence Ministry department that dealt with ethnic issues in sensitive regions. He left Kurdistan to help formulate a national strategy. In 1993, he became head of the Interior Ministry’s Social Affairs Department under President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. After the 1997 victory of reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Mashaei left the Interior Ministry and worked for state radio, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader.
In 2003, Mashaei joined the staff of Tehran’s new mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after he was selected by the conservative municipal council. He headed the city’s cultural-artistic affairs organization. Among his controversial initiatives, Mashaei proposed building a major thoroughfare to prepare for the arrival of the twelfth Shiite Imam—the Mahdi or “Hidden Imam”—who disappeared in the ninth century. The Mahdi will return as a messiah as the world comes to an end, according to Shiite eschatology.
Mashaei has held other key positions on both domestic and foreign affairs. Besides chief of staff, he has been the president’s adviser for Middle Eastern affairs; vice president of the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad; and the secretary of the administration’s cultural committee.
Mashaei is often blamed for formulating apocalyptic and religious-nationalistic themes prominent in Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric. Ahmadinejad has urged Iranians to actively pave the way for the coming of the Mahdi. The two themes have been widely viewed as an attempt to build a new constituency among the young and the poor. Ahmadinejad’s messianic interpretation differs from popular Shiite mythology and diminishes the role of Shiite clerics.
As clerics are falling out of favor in Iranian politics, Ahmadinejad’s opponents are concerned that his rhetoric of “principlists minus the clergy” will become more popular and enhance hardliners around the president.
The Iranian constitution states that the first vice president has the duty to lead cabinet meetings in the absence of the president. He also succeeds the president—with approval of the supreme leader—if the president dies or becomes incapable of performing his duties. Ahmadinejad’s critics suggested that the president was manipulating the post-election turmoil to insert his right-hand man into the center of power. In the end, however, Mashaei’s opponents had enough leverage to block his appointment. Ahmadinejad instead appointed Mashaei his chief of staff.
Kourosh Rahimkhani is an independent scholar specializing in Iranian affairs. He worked as a journalist for a number of reformist newspapers in Iran before moving to the United States.
Iran and the United States have at least one urgent interest in common: Their wrestling federations have teamed up to salvage wrestling for the 2020 Olympics after the Olympic Committee recommended dropping the sport in February 2013. The Iranian and American teams were scheduled to hold two friendly matches ― in New York on May 15 and in Los Angeles on May 19 ― to raise the sport’s profile before the committee makes a final decision in September. The Iranians beat the Americans 6 to 1 in New York.
But the Iranian team’s first trip to the United States in a decade was cut short. The team abruptly flew back to Tehran on May 16. Iran’s wrestling federation told its U.S. counterpart that the team’s schedule had changed but did not provide further explanation. The Iranians said that they remain committed to keeping wrestling in the Olympics.
Despite tensions between their governments, the American and Iranian wrestling organizations have developed a unique relationship over the past two decades. Iran’s national team has competed in the United States ten times since 1995.
U.S. participation in Iran’s 1998 Takhti Cup marked the first visit by an American sports team since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The team has competed in Iran ten other times since then. Rich Bender, executive director of USA Wrestling, discusses the U.S.-Iran wrestling relationship.
For more than a decade, Iran has looked to the United States to improve its caliber of basketball. In 2000, the national team even hired American coach Gary LeMoine. Since then, dozens of Americans ― reportedly 37 during one season ― have played on Iranian teams. Jonas Lalehzadeh is among the best-known.
Since 2011, the six-foot-five-inch point guard from California has played for the national team and two professional clubs in the Super League, Iran’s equivalent of the National Basketball Association. He was the league’s top scorer in the 2012-2013 season.
Lalehzadeh has ties to both cultures, which makes him unusual among the Americans who play ball in Iran. His Iranian parents were completing their degrees in the United States during the 1979 revolution and decided to stay. He was born in 1989. He grew up in southern California, but was immersed in Persian culture and spoke Farsi at home. He had hoped to play professional basketball in the United States, but didn’t get drafted. So he turned to his parent’s homeland. In an interview, he discussed his experience playing basketball and living in Iran as an American.
The Islamists Are Coming
The Islamists Are Coming, edited by Robin Wright, surveys the rise of Islamist groups in the wake of the Arab Spring. Often lumped together, the more than 50 Islamist parties with millions of followers now constitute a whole new spectrum—separate from either militants or secular parties. They will shape the new order in the world’s most volatile region more than any other political bloc. Yet they have diverse goals and different constituencies. Sometimes they are even rivals.
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