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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.
 
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Latest on the Race: Jalili, Ideologue on Twitter

Garrett Nada

            Saeed Jalili has never held elective office, yet he may have an important edge in the presidential race because of his close ties with Iran’s supreme leader. He is an insider’s insider. At the same time, Jalili is not a charismatic figure. He unsuccessfully ran for parliament in 2000 and 2004 to represent his hometown of Mashhad, according to his website. In a three-week presidential campaign, the challenge for Jalili may be winning sufficient public support in a field of better known candidates.
      Jalili has been secretary of the Supreme National Security Council since 2007. It is a powerful position, yet he has not had same visibility as his predecessors. His main strength has been his loyalty to the regime and commitment to the revolutionary narrative of Iranian independence from both East and West. His politics also fit well with the so-called principlist conservatives—or people who adhere to the revolution’s early ideals.
       Yet Jalili quickly went on a campaign offensive right after registering to run on May 11. He opened a Twitter feed, Google Plus account, blog and website—and in the first few days tweeted up to 50 campaign slogans in English, Arab and Farsi a day. He has had some uncharacteristically tough words for colleagues also running for the presidency. “Some politicians have certain view today, tomorrow they will present totally opposite views based on their own personal interests,” he tweeted on May 14.
 
What support does Jalili have among the general population?
          Jalili’s wartime credentials may be one of his two major assets. Born in 1965, he belongs to a generation defined by the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. His official biography says he served in the Basij paramilitary under the Revolutionary Guards, whose influence in politics and the economy has soared over the past decade. Veterans won at least 16 percent of parliament’s 290 seats in 2004. Jalili posted a picture of himself from the war on his campaign site. On May 13, he tweeted an article about a veteran’s association endorsing his campaign.
            Jalili has also served in highly visible government positions. He ran the supreme leader’s office from 2001 to 2005. In 2005, newly elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed Jalili, a personal friend, to be deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs. In 2007, Ahmadinejad appointed him to be secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.
            But Jalili has little experience working on domestic affairs, which may pose a problem since the economy is a key campaign issue.
 
How is Jalili perceived among Iran’s political elite?
      Jalili and Ahmadinejad’s friendship has reportedly suffered since the president began challenging the supreme leader’s authority after his 2009 reelection. Jalili is now widely considered to be closer to the supreme leader, which could be a key to his political future. Many candidates are running on anti-Ahmadinejad platforms.
      Among Iran watchers, Jalili is also considered an old-time ideologue at a time when more practical issues, such as the economic crisis and international isolation, dominate the political space. Jalili has promoted his religiosity in his campaign materials. His campaign posted a picture of Jalili praying in a mosque in Kazakhstan during the April 2013 nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other world powers.
            Conservative media have portrayed Jalili as a man with a common touch. One news agency posted a picture of the Jalili’s Kia Pride next to the high-end Mercedes of Hashemi Rafsanjani, another presidential candidate. His own website described him as “a diplomat who speaks little, but who is decisive and revolutionary.” His official biography has emphasized his “humility” and preference for “simple living.”
 
What positions has Jalili taken on the top campaign issues?
             On the economy, Jalili has claimed that international sanctions against Iran have actually spurred economic growth. His campaign website has highlighted his drive to combat public corruption, which several candidates have blamed for causing the economic crisis. He reportedly dismissed 17 envoys while working at the foreign ministry for corruption. Jalili has also called for further privatization. Iran’s large public sector is widely regarded as inefficient.
             On foreign policy, Jalili has echoed the supreme leader. He has described the Arab uprisings as part of “Islamic Awakening” modeled on Iran’s 1979 revolution—noting that the Iran model of an Islamic state can be reproduced everywhere. Jalili has also encouraged developing countries to pool their economic power to rival the superpowers. He tweeted the following slogan on May 14, 2013:
            Jalili has taken a hardline position on the United States and the West. The United States “violates its claims about democracy and free trade by meddling in the internal affairs of other countries,” he said on a January 2013 visit to India. But in a May 14 tweet, his campaign supported U.S.-Iran cooperation to keep the Olympic committee from cutting wrestling. The Iranian team was scheduled to visit the Los Angeles and New York for two friendly matches to raise the sport’s profile that week.
            Jalili has been a staunch defender of Iran’s nuclear energy program and right to enrich uranium. He has claimed that Tehran has no intention of building nuclear weapons. Jalili has also warned the international community against imposing further sanctions on Iran. He tweeted the following message on May 15, 2013.
 
What role has he played in negotiations between Iran and the outside world?
      Since 2007, Jalili has been Iran’s chief negotiator in talks on Iran’s controversial nuclear program with the international community. He led Iran’s delegations in talks with both the world’s six major powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany—as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is the U.N. nuclear watchdog.
      Foreign diplomats describe Jalili as adamant in defending Iran’s right to enrich uranium and long-winded, often taking hours to outline Iran’s positions. In negotiations, he is generally viewed as a purveyor of Iran’s position and a functionary rather than a pivotal decision-maker with the latitude to negotiate compromise on the spot. But they may be assets that generate trust within the regime’s inner circle.
 
What is his background?
            Jalili was born in 1965 in the northeastern city of Mashhad. He attended Imam Sadiq University after serving on the front during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. The elite Tehran institution has prepared many students for bureaucratic positions. Jalili did his graduate work on political thought in the Koran. He reportedly published a book on the Prophet Mohamed’s foreign policy while working for the foreign ministry. Jalili has also taught courses on political science at Sharif University and Imam Sadiq University, according to the biography on his campaign website. 

 

Click here for Jalili's positions on key issues

 

 
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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