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Marriage and Divorce of Hamas and Hezbollah

Hanin Ghaddar

            Iran has always been the element that tied Sunni Hamas and Shiite Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of the “resistance” against Israel and the West. Hanin Ghaddar analyzes the split between the two organizations and Iran’s role in their relationship.
 

Hamas and Hezbollah have been allies since the 1980s, when they were both founded. How is their relationship today?

      Hamas and Hezbollah have had a dramatic breakup after the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Part of the breakup is due to sectarian differences; another part is due to rival regional alliances. Hamas is a predominantly Sunni group. Hezbollah is overwhelmingly Shiite. The split has played out between their forces on the ground as well as between their political leaders.
      Both movements—which are political parties as well as militias—have been allied with Syria and Iran since they were both founded in the 1980s. The rupture is one of the most profound shifts in Islamist politics over the past three decades.
            Relations have steadily soured between the two organizations since protesters took to the streets against the regime of President Bashar Assad in March 2011. Hezbollah remained loyal to the Damascus regime, while Hamas relations with Assad eroded.
            Sectarian differences began to redefine their relationship in later 2011, as the Syrian conflict devolved into a confrontation between Sunni rebels and a government led by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. In January 2012, Hamas moved its headquarters from Syria to Qatar, which is a Sunni sheikhdom. Within weeks, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh formally announced support for Sunni rebels.
            In early 2013, Hezbollah increased its presence in the conflict, dispatching troops to fight alongside Syrian forces. By mid-2013, Hezbollah and Hamas were reportedly fighting each other in the Syrian town of Qusayr, which is near the Lebanese border. Hezbollah fought side-by-side with the Syrian Army against rebels boosted by Hamas operatives.
           In June 2013, the two organizations tried to patch things up at a high-level meeting in Beirut. They reportedly agreed to disagree about the Syrian crisis and not allow political differences to affect their bilateral ties. But relations are almost certain to remain strained as long as they are both on the ground in Syria.
           For the wider Middle East, the Hamas-Hezbollah split is a dangerous microcosm of a growing trend. The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is now the main fault line on the ground and in politics, and it may impact the Syrian crisis most of all.

How has their relationship changed? What role has Iran played?
           Iran has always been the element that tied (Sunni) Hamas and (Shiite) Hezbollah together. The Islamic Republic’s priority was to foster organizations that would be part of “resistance” against Israel and the West. Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guards basically created Hezbollah soon after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Iran has reportedly provided the organization with millions of dollars in funding and advanced weapons as a frontline resistance in Lebanon against Israel.
            Tehran was not involved in the creation of Hamas, which grew out Muslim Brotherhood remnants in the Gaza Stip. Hamas formally announced its formation when the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, erupted against Israeli occupation in 1987. Tehran reportedly started providing Hamas financial aid and military training in the early 1990s. Thousands of Hamas militants have reportedly trained at Revolutionary Guard bases in Iran and Lebanon, while Hamas opened an office in Tehran.
            Iran continued support for Hamas during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. It increased aid to Hamas after Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004 and Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. It also helped bail out Hamas after it took control of Gaza in 2007. Tehran also allegedly provided Hamas military equipment used in the 2008 and 2012 conflicts with Israel.
            Hezbollah developed close ties to Hamas as a result of Tehran’s sponsorship. In Lebanon, Hezbollah hosted Hamas leaders for years. But in mid-2013, Hezbollah reportedly asked Hamas leaders to leave Dahiyeh, the southern suburbs of Beirut.
            Tehran reportedly reduced its funding for Hamas over its involvement in Syria. “For supporting the Syrian revolution, we lost very much,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister, said in May 2013.
            But Hamas may be reconsidering its strained relationship with Hezbollah and Tehran. Hamas may feel its position has weakened since the July 3, 2013 toppling of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader. A few weeks later, Hamas official Ahmad Youssef told the press that the movement had met with Iranian and Hezbollah representatives in Beirut. “Both sides stressed that their common enemy is Israel, with the understanding that each side understands the other’s position regarding areas of difference,” Youssef said, “particularly when it comes to the situation in Syria.”
 
What are the similarities and differences in their agendas? How have their goals and strategies changed since the 1980s?
      Hezbollah have Hamas have both undergone profound transformations since they were founded. In their early years, both were considered underground movements associated with violence and suicide bombings. But they later gained reputations for delivering social services. Hamas and Hezbollah built bases of support that allowed them to establish influential political parties.
      Since its inception, Hezbollah has been committed to resisting Israel. The Party of God has also been loyal to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its agenda has almost always aligned with Tehran’s interests. But it has accepted that Lebanon’s diverse population may necessitate a multi-sectarian state rather than an Islamic government.
            Hamas has had parallel goals to Hezbollah. It has been committed to the destruction of Israel and creating an Islamic state in Palestine, although some leaders have indicated in recent years that they might accept a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders—next to a Jewish state. But the organization has retained its right to resist Israel with violence.
            Hamas and Hezbollah had similar goals and objectives as long as they considered Israel the main enemy. But the Syrian uprising changed everything. Hezbollah shifted its primary focus to defending the Assad regime rather than confronting Israel.
 
What countries influence, army and train Hamas and Hezbollah funds?
           Qatar stepped in to provide Hamas with money and arms once Iran reduced for support for Hamas. Qatar’s influence over Hamas also increased after Khaled Mashaal moved to Doha in 2012. He reportedly had a close relationship with the former emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. In October 2012, Sheikh Hamad became the first head of state to visit Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007. He pledged $400 million to build homes and rehabilitate roads. But Qatar’s relationship with Hamas has been merely political, not military.
            Hezbollah’s main benefactor is still Iran. But their relationship runs much deeper than any relationship Hamas has ever had with a sponsor. Hezbollah is significantly dependent on Iranian support, particularly the Revolutionary Guards.
            Hezbollah initially resisted getting involved in Syria because of the potential costs. But Iran’s needs have trumped Hezbollah’s interests. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has visited Iran twice since the Syrian uprising began. Hezbollah eventually entered Syria on the side of Assad, almost certainly under Iranian pressure.
 
What have Hamas and Hezbollah achieved politically?
            Hezbollah entered electoral politics in 1992, winning eight parliamentary seats. It gradually gained more influence as a member of coalition governments but did not play a major role until Syria’s 2005 withdrawal from Lebanon. Hezbollah effectively inherited the Syrian role, including influence over state institutions. By 2010, it was powerful enough to force the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri by pulling out of the coalition government, although the move cost it some support.
            Hezbollah is now entrenched in the Lebanese state. It has sufficient clout to prevent the creation of any government that would try to exclude it. Its hold extends into some branches of the Lebanese Army and intelligence services.
            Hamas entered politics much later than Hezbollah. In 2006, it won a stunning victory against the long-dominant Fatah Party of Yasser Arafat in parliamentary elections--and quickly had to learn how to govern. In 2007, clashes between Hamas and Fatah left Hamas in uncontested control of Gaza, which it still held six years later.
            The electoral victories of Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco boosted Hamas’ status after the 2011 uprisings. Two years later, however, its popular support may be ebbing. Ironically, Hamas now faces challenges from other Islamists, notably ultraconservative Salafis and jihadi groups in Gaza.
 
For more information on Hezbollah's interests in Syria, watch Ghaddar's July 25 presentation at the Wilson Center.
 
Hanin Ghaddar is the managing editor of NOW Lebanon and was a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars Middle East Program in 2012.
 
Photo credits: Khaled Meshaal by Trango (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Rouhani and the Revolutionary Guards

Will Fulton

            Fulton is the author of “The IRGC Command Network: Formal Structures and Informal Influence,” which details the evolution of a powerful faction within the Revolutionary Guard’s core leadership and its influence on regime decision-making.

How have the Revolutionary Guards reacted to Hassan Rouhani's victory?
      Immediately after the mid-June election, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) issued a formal statement welcoming Rouhani’s election and pledging to work with him. “We are fully prepared to cooperate with the future administration in the framework of all our legitimate duties and missions. The grand and passionate presence of the people in the election on the one hand began a new chapter in the evolutionary movement of the Islamic Revolution and the progress of the country, and on the other hand, signaled another defeat for the enemies’ front.”
      Otherwise, the Revolutionary Guards leadership has refrained from commenting on Rouhani’s victory except to distinguish him politically from the reform movement led by President Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005. Mohammad Safar Harandi, a senior IRGC adviser, for example, insisted that the new president is ideologically closer to the principlists (ultraconservatives), the political group most closely aligned to the influential Command Network.
            The “Command Network” is one faction of extremely influential hardline IRGC commanders. This is a group with relationships dating back to the 1980-1988 war with Iraq that has since remained remarkably cohesive. Many of its members almost certainly interacted with Rouhani during the war or his 16 years as secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. 
            On July 2, Brig. Gen. Ali Fazli, deputy commander of the paramilitary Basij and a Command Network member, attempted to legitimize the controversial 2009 reelection of President Ahmadinejad by pointing to the success of the 2013 election of Rouhani. “Those who accused the system of fraud in the [2009] election have realized with the people’s epic participation in the recent election that their claims were complete lies…. Those who made improper claims of fraud and entered the electoral process with doubt and created suspicion among the Iranian people should today come and apologize to the people and the system.”
 
How might Hassan Rouhani's election impact the Revolutionary Guards' influence on regime policy? And how might it be different from the Guards' influence during the Ahmadinejad years in power?
      One benchmark for IRGC influence in the new government will be Rouhani’s cabinet. Ahmadinejad had an unprecedented number of former IRGC officers in his cabinet, and change or consistency in this presence could be telling. The senior leaders, however, are unlikely to be forcibly removed from their current positions as a result of Rouhani’s election. The core IRGC leadership will, therefore, remain positioned to directly influence regime decision-making, particularly on national security and core foreign policy issues. In that sense, little may change.
            In the domestic realm, the IRGC may tolerate attempts by the new government to reform civil society, as long as reforms do not unleash currents that jeopardize regime stability. For example, the IRGC tolerated President Mohammad Khatami’s reformist government until the July 1999 student protests prompted the Guards’ leadership to threaten direct intervention if the government did not contain the situation. This is not a perfect comparison, however, as the IRGC has become more aggressive in responding to internal threats since IRGC commander Jafari’s 2007 appointment, and especially since mass demonstrations after the 2009 election. The Command Network, the same core group that then controlled the IRGC and warned Khatami, has only strengthened its grip in the intervening years. It is now is positioned to intervene again against any perceived challenges to the regime or the Guards’ interests.
 
Do the Revolutionary Guards have "red lines" for Rouhani's administration? What might they be?
            The Revolutionary Guards have articulated at least one red line. Three days after the election, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Esmail Kowsari repudiated the influence of reformist leaders in the 2013 election. He warned against allowing former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami to have influence again.  Kowsari is a former senior IRGC commander linked to the Command Network. He currently represents Tehran in parliament and is a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission. Kowsari said Iranians “fundamentally no longer trust” the reformists. Hardliners both inside and outside the IRGC appear to be united on this issue.
 
Who are the most influential Revolutionary Guards commanders? What is their relationship with Rouhani?
      The Command Network has steadily gained control of nearly all the key command and staff positions in the IRGC and Armed Forces General Staff (AFGS). Its members include IRGC commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, deputy chief of the AFGS Maj. Gen. Gholam Ali Rashid, Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, IRGC Navy Commander Brig. Gen. Ali Fadavi, AFGS Intelligence and Operations deputy Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, and others.
      Although very influential, the Command Network is also only one part of the IRGC leadership. Another faction of current and former IRGC commanders—including Ali Shamkhani (above with Rouhani) and Hossein Alaei— appears to be more closely aligned with Rouhani’s camp. After the 2013 election, former IRGC Navy Commander Alaei defended Rouhani as “a known figure in the Islamic Republic, and there are no issues with him. He has been, and is, a revolutionary individual and effective in the revolution,” while Shamkhani praised the role of former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami, who both supported Rouhani prior to the election.
 
Will Fulton is an Iran Analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
 
Click here for the full report on the IRGC Command Network.

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What Iran’s Election Means for the Future

Fatemeh Haghighatjoo

      Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjoo was a member of Iran’s parliament between 2000 and 2004. Elected at the age of 30, she was the youngest woman member ever elected to the Majles and one of only 13 women — among 290 — in the sixth parliament. Haghighatjoo charged the Revolutionary Guards with torture and the Guardian Council with manipulating elections. The Guardian Council subsequently barred her from running for office. Haghighatjoo is now directing the Nonviolent Initiative for Democracy, a nonprofit organization based in Boston.

What does the presidential election tell us about Iran’s political climate?
      The election shows that Iranians want to open up the political space and increase civil liberties. They want to see the removal of the securitized atmosphere. The state interferes in every aspect of people’s lives. People are arrested for next to nothing. Iranians want to see a more rational government take over.
            For the first time, foreign policy played an important role in the presidential election. Even the government did not anticipate that it would come up as a key issue during the presidential debates. Foreign policy dominated the campaign because it is connected to people’s everyday life.
            Iranians sent a clear message to the government that they want to see the nuclear issue resolved because they realize how it negatively impacts their daily lives. But that does not necessarily mean that Iranians do not want development of nuclear technology. President-elect Hassan Rouhani put this in nice sentences. “It is important for centrifuges to spin, but people’s lives should run too,” he said during the campaign. Rouhani sees the connection. 
 
What does the election mean for change in domestic policy?
             On security issues, Rouhani will try to reduce the influence of the security apparatus in daily life. The government looks at everything through the lens of security. Even youth playing with water guns in a park may be seen as a threat. Rouhani has said that he does not want a securitized atmosphere. He wants to relax controls on civil society and cultural affairs.
             On the economy, Rouhani will reverse outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s populist policies. Economic growth rates have been negative for two consecutive years. Rouhani‘s team will have a hard time to reversing this trend. His goal will be creation of job opportunities and a positive growth rate. On subsidies, he will likely enact more efficient reforms. Ahmadinejad executed the reforms poorly. His government borrowed money from the central bank, which dramatically increased inflation to more than 40 percent.
             On education, Rouhani may try to reverse changes made to higher education. Ahmadinejad’s government purged professors, pushing them to retire early. The social sciences and humanities also suffered. Women were barred from more than 70 majors, and women’s studies departments were shut down.
             But some of these actions were probably ordered by the supreme leader. And Rouhani will not challenge Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on every issue. Women’s issues are usually secondary to other issues, unfortunately. 
             On cultural affairs, he is likely to lift some unnecessary restrictions on the cultural and arts community to allow more productions.
 
What does the election mean for the balance of power between supreme leader and presidency?
             Over the past 16 years, Khamenei has consolidated his power over the legislative, judicial and executive branches and curtailed their independence. Rouhani has a good relationship with Khamenei and is trusted. He has a great ability to convince people as well, which will help the new president to extend his power. But Khamenei will not sit by while his real power shrinks. Rouhani will engage Khamenei and prioritize which issues to take bolder action on. Rouhani’s priorities will likely be foreign affairs and the nuclear issue, his specialties.
 
What does Rouhani’s election mean for nuclear policy and negotiations?
             Rouhani’s main priority is fruitful negotiations with P5+1 (the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). He will almost certainly not accept suspension of uranium enrichment. The national consensus is that Iran must continue to enrich uranium domestically. But Rouhani will work on building trust with the West and the United States to gradually lift sanctions. He may accept U.N. measures that ensure Iran will not militarize its nuclear program.
             On the other hand, the nuclear issue has become something of a domestic political game in Iran. Rouhani will try to strengthen his approach to nuclear talks by engaging all key players including the Supreme Leader, the Revolutionary Guards and parliament while preventing radicals from trying to sabotage his approach to the talks.
 
What did the election say about the balance of political power?
             During the campaign, Rouhani promised to form an inclusive cabinet that would bring moderates from both the reformist (centrist) camp and the principlist (conservative) camp. He understood that in order to get things done, politicians from both the left and the right need to view his election as a win-win situation.
             Rouhani’s government will likely be particularly cooperative with parliament. This speaks to his background as a former deputy speaker, former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and former chairman of the Defense Commission. Rouhani served in parliament for two decades between 1980 and 2000.
 
What does the election mean for youth, who now dominate the population?
             The youth participated in the election to say no to the status quo. But they have some doubts. They recognize that amending the constitution is out of the question for now. So they have minimalized their demands in the hopes of changing smaller things. The youth mainly want to see economic improvement, social relaxation and more civil liberties. The rate of unemployment is extremely high and inflation is above 40 percent.
             Rouhani’s trump card has been the youth, so he won’t forget their demands if he is thinking about re-election in 2016.
 

Part I: Iran-Syria Religious Ties

Mehdi Khalaji

            Iran and Syria are unlikely bedfellows. Iran has been an Islamic republic—and the world’s only modern theocracy—since the 1979 revolution. Syria has been a rigidly secular and socialist country since Hafez Assad took over in 1970. Ethnically, Iran is predominantly Persian, while Syria is predominantly Arab. Yet Tehran and Damascus have one of the region’s strongest alliances—based in part on religion. Iran is Shiite-dominated and Syria is predominantly ruled by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot. They share a common interest in the survival of a minority in the Middle East, which is about 85 percent Sunni Muslim.

      The ties were again reflected in the Iranian regime’s call for volunteers to protect Shiite shrines in Syria in early May 2013, after Syrian rebels reportedly ransacked the shrine of Hojr Ibn Oday, a revered Shiite figure, in Damascus. The Nusra Front, a Sunni militia affiliated with al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for exhuming Oday’s remains. Syria is home to some 50 Shiite shrines and holy places. For centuries, Iranians have performed pilgrimages to Syria. The holiest is the Tomb of Zaynab (left) on the outskirts of Damascus. Mehdi Khalaji explains the religious ties that bind two of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East.
 
What religious doctrines do Shiites and Alawites share? How have the Iranian and Syrian regimes bonded through belief?
            The Alawite sect is a relatively minor branch of Shiism. Alawis share the Shiite belief that leadership of the Islamic world—and rights to interpret the faith—should have descended through Prophet Mohammed’s family after his death. They believed that Ali—who was both the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law—should have become the first caliph in the 7th century. Shiite literally means “follower of Ali.” In contrast, Sunnis believe that leadership should instead be inherited by the prophet’s early advisers. Ali was briefly the fourth caliph, but otherwise leadership of the Islamic world has since been largely dominated by Sunnis.
            Since the 9th century, Alawites struggled for legitimacy and recognition from other Muslims. One important breakthrough was a fatwa issued in the 1970s by Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric and head of Lebanon’s Shiite community. He formally announced the acceptance of Alawites as Shiites, a move that significantly opened the way for the sect’s recognition within the general Shiite community.
            In recent decades, Twelver Shiites have also made serious efforts to minimize theological differences between mainstream Shiism and Alawites. This has been partly due to the decline of Arab nationalism and rise of the religious factor in making political alliances and defining identity. The shift is palpable in many ways. Shiite clergy use Damascus as a bridge to connect Shiites in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait and Lebanon together. The Syrian government has allowed Shiites to visit various holy sites, especially the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque.
 
How are Alawites different from Shiites?
            Alawites, or “Alawis,” are primarily known in the Islamic orthodoxy as “Nusayris.” Nusayri-Alawi is an esoteric sect that is relatively unstudied because members have historically kept core beliefs secret.
            In terms of theological principles, rituals, and jurisprudence, Twelver Shiism and the Nusayri-Alawi faith have few commonalities. (Iran practices Twelver Shiism, so named because of the belief in twelve divinely ordained Imams, or leaders.) For centuries, Nusayri-Alawis were actually considered heretics by both Shiites and Sunnis and often faced persecution. For instance, they venerate Ali as a supreme and eternal God.
            They were only embraced by Muslims under certain advantageous political circumstances. Their historical position is similar to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints among Christians. Both experienced difficulties being recognized by the orthodoxy. Both are secret sects. And outsiders have minimal access to their core beliefs and administration. 
            One major difference between the two Shiite branches is the source of religious authority. Twelver Shiites are led by an ayatollah, who is the source of emulation on juridical issues and rituals. The faithful are also obligated to pay religious taxes to their ayatollahs. But Alawis do not have ayatollahs. So the two sects have not historically had the same religious-financial bonds. 
 
What are the political bonds between Iran’s Shiites and Syria’s Alawites?
            The political bonds between Shiites and Alawites are more about identity and survival of a minority than about religious doctrine. The Middle East is dominated by Sunnis. Iran and Iraq are the only Shiite majority countries in the region, while Syria was for decades the only major Arab country ruled by the Shiite offshoot. Iraq was ruled for nearly a quarter century by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. So Iran and Syria have had natural psychological bonds that turned into a political alliance over common religious identity. The bonds were further fostered after the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq—the country that separates them—in 2003. This nascent Shiite bloc was dubbed the “Shiite crescent” by Jordan’s King Abdullah.
            The bonds are also strategic for two isolated governments. The Assad regime’s need for allies in Iran and Lebanon made it ignore the theological differences between Twelver Shiism and Nusari-Alawis. The Islamic Republic of Iran, spurned by the region’s Sunni-led governments, made ties with Alawite brethren in Syria particularly appealing—even though Tehran has actually never referred to Damascus as an Alawi regime. Its official policy toward Muslim countries has been to highlight Islam rather than its specific branches.
            In the end, Iran and Syria actually have very different types of government. Syria’s ruling elite may be Alawite, but the government’s official ideology is Ba’athism, a secular mix of socialism and pan-Arabism. The Ba’ath party is also not only Alawite. It also includes some Sunnis and Christians.
            The governments in Syria and Iran also have different ties to their constituencies. The Alawites are only about 12 percent of the Syrian population. Syrians are predominantly Sunni. In Iran, more than 90 percent of the population is Shiite.
 
 
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, studied Shiite theology in the Qom seminary of Iran. 

 

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Latest on the Race: Rafsanjani Redux?

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 support does Rafsanjani have among the general population today?
            After two decades of dominating political power, Rafsanjani suffered serious setbacks in his last two campaigns for parliament in 2000 and the presidency in 2005. Although considered a pragmatist in the 1980s and early 1990s, a new generation of reformists began turning elsewhere in the late 1990s. Disillusionment deepened after his statements following the brutal government crackdown on protests in 1999, when university students rallied against the closing of a reformist newspaper and new limits on freedom of expression. In a sermon, Rafsanjani condoned the use of force to stop “enemies of the revolution.”
            In the 2000 election, Rafsanjani failed to win enough votes for any of the 30 parliamentary seats allocated to Tehran — a stunning development. A recount later claimed that he came in 29th, although he opted not to take the seat.
            Rafsanjani attempted another comeback in a run for the presidency in 2005. His inventive campaign had young girls on rollerblades pass out “Hashemi 2005” bumper stickers. The campaign set up tents in Tehran and blared Western-style music ― a controversial move in a country that had banned broadcast music after the 1979 revolution. Rafsanjani faced Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the working-class mayor of Tehran, in a runoff election. Ahmadinejad routed Rafsanjani with about 62 percent of the vote.  
           
How is Rafsanjani perceived among Iran’s political elite?
      Key members of the reformist elite supported Rafsanjani’s 2013 presidential bid. Former President Mohammad Khatami (left) called Rafsanjani the “most appropriate figure” for easing economic challenges and international pressures. “Now it is the people's turn to enter the scene with bravery and responsibility and assist him,” Khatami said.
      But hardliners countered by painting Rafsanjani as part of a “deviant camp.” They claimed that he helped incite mass demonstrations—the largest since the revolution—after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Rafsanjani’s critics demanded that he condemn Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the opposition Green Movement who both ran for president in 2009.
            In May 2013, some 100 hardline members of parliament reportedly sent a petition to the 12-man Guardian Council urging it to disqualify Rafsanjani for having a major role “in managing the sedition” after the 2009 election. Before the election, hardliners had also considered a new law prohibiting candidates over the age of 75. The idea was widely believed to be an attempt to prevent Rafsanjani, then 78, from running. But the Guardian Council rejected the bill.
 
What is Rafsanjani’s record on domestic policy?
      In the 1980s and 1990s, Rafsanjani was considered pragmatic on both domestic and foreign affairs. After the eight-year war with Iraq, he moved to jumpstart the war-ravaged economy. He pushed a free-market agenda after he became president in 1989. He reopened the stock market launched during the monarchy and encouraged foreign investment with new incentives. He cut a few subsidies and started privatizing state-run businesses.
      But conservative opponents in parliament balked at his plans for economic shock therapy. And excessive spending depleted foreign exchange reserves, forcing Iran into debt. When he ran for reelection in 1993, the public also seemed less enthusiastic, as his support at the polls dropped significantly. Inflation soared in 1994, and the economy went into a recession. Iran’s Chamber of Commerce acknowledged that up to 40 percent of Iranians lived below the poverty line in 1996.
            Rafsanjani initially succeeded in easing social restrictions and cultural censorship. Women began wearing brightly colored headscarves instead of the full-body and typically black chador. His minister of culture, Mohammad Khatami, was credited with allowing revival of Iranian music and cinema. But hardliners in parliament forced Khatami from office in 1992. Rafsanjani also found it increasingly difficult to enact reforms as Supreme Leader Khamenei and his conservative allies consolidated power in the mid-1990s.
 
What is Rafsanjani’s record on foreign policy?
            In the mid-1980s, Rafsanjani reportedly played a key role in the arms-for-hostage scandal, which involved acquiring American weapons in exchange for release of American hostages held in Lebanon. He was widely viewed as the leading advocate of repairing relations with the United States to end Iran’s isolation. Even after the scandal was revealed, he reportedly dispatched a nephew to Washington to probe the potential of reviving behind-the-scenes talks.
            In 1988, Rafsanjani also played a key role in convincing Ayatollah Khomeini to end the war with Iraq, in which more than 120,000 Iranians died. Afterwards, he again sought to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation. But he made little progress, partly because of Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa calling for the death of British author Salman Rushdie for his book “The Satanic Verses.” Tehran also continued to support Hezbollah, a radical Lebanese Shiite militia, and opposed the Arab-Israeli peace process. But Rafsanjani did improve relations with China, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
            Toward the end of his presidency in the mid-1990s, Rafsanjani reportedly orchestrated the offer of a $1 billion contract to U.S. oil company Conoco to develop Iran’s offshore fields. The move was widely interpreted as an indirect overture to the United States through commercial channels. Under congressional pressure, however, President Clinton issued an executive order in March 1995 that prohibited U.S. trade in or development of Iranian oil.

What is Rafsanjani’s relationship with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei?
      Rafsanjani and Khamenei both were active against the monarchy. Both spent time in the shah’s jail. And both were close disciples of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini. (The three clerics are pictured on the left in the 1980s). Rafsanjani was instrumental in promoting Khamenei to the position of supreme leader in 1989.
      But Rafsanjani’s relationship with Khamenei soured in the 1990s as the two men jockeyed for control of the Islamic Republic. As the new supreme leader, Khamenei reportedly disapproved of Rafsanjani’s efforts to improve relations with the West, move towards a free-market economy, and loosen social restrictions.  Rafsanjani also then had wider popular support.
            Khamenei gradually got the upper hand after Rafsanjani had to step down from the presidency in 1997, as the constitution only allows two sequential terms. Rafsanjani’s attempts at a political comeback in 2000 and 2005 then failed.
            After the controversial 2009 presidential election, the regime also revoked Rafsanjani’s title as Friday prayer leader when he gave a sermon criticizing the government crackdown on protestors. Rafsanjani then lost his post as head of the Assembly of Experts in 2011. Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani, an elderly conservative cleric who reportedly had Khamenei’s backing, took his place. Rafsanjani chose not to contest the election.  
             His third attempt at a comeback in 2013 surprised even astute political analysts in Iran. Rafsanjani had initially said that he would not run for president without the supreme leader’s permission. He reportedly informed the supreme leader of his interest shortly before registering—also in the final minutes of the five-day process. He did not indicate whether or not he won Khamenei’s approval.
 
What positions has Rafsanjani taken on Iran’s most critical domestic and foreign policy issues, such as negotiations over the nuclear program?
            Rafsanjani is generally running on his past record. His official campaign website says Iran needs a “captain,” not an “inexperienced boatman” to lead Iran. He has also compared Iran’s problems in 2013 to the challenges it faced during post-war reconstruction in the 1990s.
            On the economy, Rafsanjani has called for further privatization of Iran’s large state-run sector. He has also criticized the government’s reliance on oil revenues and neglect of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. Rafsanjani has favored subsidy reform but has emphasized the importance of reinvesting government savings.
            On the controversial nuclear program, Rafsanjani has supported negotiations with the West and the international community. He has also been a staunch defender of Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment capabilities. Rafsanjani has said that Tehran does not want nuclear arms.   
            In the past, Rafsanjani advocated rapprochement with the United States and the West. Iran would negotiate with the United States if it showed “goodwill,” Rafsanjani told USA Today in 2005. In comments posted on his 2013 campaign website, he said, “We shouldn’t be afraid of interaction with the world.” At the same time, he has warned against giving into the demands of “bullying and domineering powers.”
            Rafsanjani has also supported opening up Iranian society. He has called for greater media freedom and the release of detained journalists. “We should open the doors to debates,” Rafsanjani said in a July 2009 sermon after the presidential election. He has even reportedly described Facebook and other social media as a “blessing” that helps “movements against tyranny and oppression.”
            Rafsanjani has publicly opposed harsh implementation of Iran’s penal code, which is based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. “We should live based on Islamic laws and not based on radical individuals' interpretations which sometimes make people's lives difficult,” Rafsanjani told journalists in May 2005.  But he was also in power during periods when the international community criticized Iran for support of extremist movements and ruthless internal repression.
 
What is his background?
      Rafsanjani was born in 1934 in Bahraman village near the south-central city of Rafsanjan, the district from which he gets his name. His father was a well-to-do pistachio farmer. Rafsanjani left home at age 14 to study Islamic jurisprudence in the holy city of Qom, where he developed a close relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1958, Rafsanjani married Effat Marashi, the daughter of a respected cleric. They have five children: Fatemeh, Mohsen, Faezeh, Mehdi and Yasser.
      Rafsanjani joined the struggle against the Pahlavi dynasty in the late 1950s. He was detained seven times and imprisoned for a total of four years spread out between from 1958 to 1979, according to his bio.
 
            Rafsanjani was a top adviser to Khomeini throughout the revolution. He was elected speaker of Iran’s first post-revolution parliament in 1980 and held the position for nine years.
      Khomeini appointed Rafsanjani to be his personal representative on the Supreme Defense Council during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. He also briefly served as acting commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
      But he also has enemies. In May 1979, he narrowly escaped assassination by members of the leftist Islamic group, Forqan.
      Rafsanjani and his family have reportedly amassed significant wealth since the revolution. In 2003, Forbes named him as one of the “millionaire mullahs.” Critics have accused Rafsanjani and his sons of corruption. His youngest son Yasser, a businessman educated in Belgium, has run a successful export-import firm. Rafsanjani’s middle son, Mehdi, has done well financially through connections to the oil industry. He used to head a subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company. Rafsanjani’s oldest son Mohsen headed Tehran’s metro until he resigned in 2011.
 
Links to Rafsanjani’s official website and Twitter account.
 
Robin Wright is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She edited The Iran Primer. See her chapter, “The Challenge of Iran.”
 
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
 
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org
 

 

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