Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the forthcoming Iranian election, subject to approval of his candidacy from the Guardian Council, a body that determines which candidates are loyal enough to the supreme leader to appear on the ballot. For example, when Mohammad Khatami won the presidency in 1997, he defeated three other candidates but only after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified 234 other candidates deemed too liberal or insufficiency loyal to the supreme leader. More than 680 candidates have registered to run for next month’s election; most will never have their names appear on a ballot.
The Western press appears both dangerously infatuated with and enthusiastic about Rafsanjani, falsely attributing moderation to the former leader:
- Reuters, for example, called Rafsanjani “a relative moderate.”
- The BBC declared the corrupt multibillionaire is “virtually assured the support of reformers.”
- The Associated Press called Rafsanjani the “prime hopeful for reformists.”
- Citing an activist—but failing to mention he operates out of an organization that lobbies for the Islamic Republic—the Washington Post concluded that Rafsanjani was a “pragmatic voice in the current political order who could help guide Iran out of its current problems and potentially mend relations with the United States.”
- The New York Times reported “Mr. Rafsanjani…has cast himself as a pragmatist, calling for a more open society and better business relationships with the West.”
Among journalists, it seems, it’s déjà vu all over again. When Rafsanjani first won the presidency back in 1989, the West was optimistic: The Iran-Iraq War had ended the previous year and revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini had died six weeks before the elections. In both Washington and European capitals—the Salman Rushdie death warrant notwithstanding—there was hope that Iran would turn a new page, and that the revolutionary ayatollahs would move to normalize relations with the international community.
It was not to be. Even though Rafsanjani suggested that “reasonable, prudent solutions” could free the American hostages that Iranian-backed groups continued to hold in Lebanon and despite the fact that the new Iranian president told Pakistani intermediaries that U.S. gestures could grease reconciliation, the Iranians failed to deliver. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft sought UN mediation, and UN Secretary General Pérez de Cuéllar appointed Giandomenico Picco, an Italian career UN bureaucrat, to be his representative. Picco dutifully flew off to Tehran, where Rafsanjani dismissed outright reconciliation with Washington. To negotiate over the American hostages in Beirut would be to admit Iranian culpability. While Rafsanjani spoke publicly of pragmatism, privately he revived Iran’s covert nuclear program—of which he claims to be the father today—and played a crucial role in ordering the assassinations of Iranian dissidents abroad.
Some of the most spectacular Iranian terror attacks—such as the 1994 bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires—not only occurred under Rafsanjani’s watch but also with his direct authorization. And no one should forget that it was Rafsanjani who, on December 14, 2001, suggested that an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel might be foreseeable, since one nuclear weapon could annihilate Israel while Iran would be large enough to absorb any retaliation.
Western diplomats and journalists should avoid three mistakes when considering Rafsanjani’s run:
1) Do not consider Iran a democracy. The supreme leader is substance; the presidency is only about style. Yes, Iran has elections, but they would be akin to elections in the Soviet Union if only Communist Party Central Committee members were allowed to run. Most electoral democracies do not disqualify 90-plus percent of candidates before election day.
2) Do not exaggerate factions. Factions exist in any government—even North Korea—but the presence of factions does not translate into their relevance or ability to influence outcome. The supreme leader remains in control and has leverage over Rafsanjani in three ways: First, he can expose if not confiscate Rafsanjani’s ill-gotten wealth; Second, he can imprison–or worse–Rafsanjani’s children; and, third, he can use vigilante groups if not the Basij directly to physically constrain Rafsanjani.
3) Do not confuse reformists with opposition. The reformists are as committed to the system of Islamist democracy as hardliners are. The problem for most Iranians isn’t simply whether the police harass women who show too much hair. Rather, it’s the fact that the supreme leader considers himself the deputy of the messiah on earth. This is why muddle-through reform cannot work in Iran: Sovereignty comes not from the people, but from God himself through the mahdi and the supreme leader. What 95 percent of the people might think is without meaning to Supreme Leader Khamenei. Indeed, protecting the theocracy from the people is why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps exists in the first place.
Make no mistake: The problem in the Islamic Republic today is not one personality or another, but rather the system of government and the ideology to which it subscribes. There will be no effective difference in the goals of Iranian policy between the Ahmadinejad years and a Rafsanjani redux.