The Return of the “Easy Man” in Iran?

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the moderate leader who reopened Iran to the West in the 1990s, disappeared from public view during the Ahmadinajad era. Now he's back.
By: /
March 5, 2014
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The world remains fixated on developments inside Iran, not knowing whether Iran’s change of heart over its nuclear program is a strategic bluff or a true change of course. Fittingly and despite a recent change in leadership, Iranian politics remains murky to the outside observer. It is for this reason that a key player over the past three decades in Iran—Ayatollah Khomeini’s favourite disciple and follower, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has been largely ignored despite his recent re-emergence of late as a person of increasing influence. Known to Westerners as the “easy man” (a term he has used to describe himself in the past) because he reopened Iran to the West during his tenure as President, Rafsanjani disappeared from public view during the Ahmadinajad era. Of late, however, he appears to be making a comeback under President Rouhani—although more in backroom politics than in a formal leadership role. This comeback might explain the pragmatic realignment of Iran’s strategic priorities vis à vis states in the region and beyond.

To hold its components together, any structure needs at least one unifying element and the Iranian regime is no exception. As long as Ayatollah Khomeini remained in power, he played the unifying role to hold the various interest groups and components of the Islamic regime together. Thus, the system was able to survive several factional disputes, plots, coups, and, of course, eight years of devastating war with neighbouring Iraq. Although Khomeini was both a charismatic and authoritarian leader, his fundamentalist approaches were often moderated by Rafsanjani to placate moderate constituencies in the country. Indeed, it was Rafsanjani who helped Khomeini out of two of the most crucial predicaments in the history of the post-revolutionary Iran, namely the American-Iranian hostage crisis and the war with Iraq in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

During the hostage crisis Rafsanjani, then the Parliamentary Speaker, convinced Khomeini to pull back from further executive involvement in decision-making and leave the decision on whether and how to release the U.S. hostages to the Iranian parliament, where as the Speaker he had the upper hand. Rafsanjani was subsequently able to prevent Khomeini from losing face. In the final year of the Iran-Iraq war, as the acting supreme commander in chief of the Iranian forces it was again Rafsanjani who managed to convince Khomeini to accept a ceasefire that the latter had rejected during the previous eight years. No other close associate of Khomeini dared recommend to the Ayatollah that the regime drink the “poison hemlock” to end the war.

In both cases Rafsanjani, considered by some to be the Deng Xiaoping of the Islamic regime, was the only top politician who not only recognized the necessity of a balance between fundamentalism and pragmatism in the Islamic regime’s political strategy, but also possessed the courage to convince others within the Iranian leadership to accept the unacceptable when absolutely necessary.

There were various other various other cases during the 1990s when Rafsanjani led the Islamic regime out of difficult situations. For example, when Ayatollah Khomeini died without an obvious successor, it was Rafsanjani who took the lead during the succession crisis. He nominated Ali Khamenei and convinced the “Council of Experts” (Supreme Council of high ranking clergy) to vote for the latter as the successor. Rafsanjani was also instrumental in keeping Iran out of the Gulf War and avoiding an extension of the conflict within the region. When the United States invaded Iraq in February 1991 to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi occupation, there was extensive pressure from hardliners within the Iranian hierarchy who believed Iran should actively support the Iraqi leader. Rafsanjani, then President of the Islamic Republic (Khamenei was yet to concentrate power in his own hands), refrained from getting involved.

The latest example of Rafsanjani’s moderating influence on Iranian politics came quite recently. In May 2013, after being absent from the political scene throughout Ahmadinejad’s government, Rafsanjani ran for the presidency but was disqualified by the influential hardliners within the electoral council or the “Council of Guardians” (COG). Rafsanjani, frustrated by what he had considered an irresponsible move by the COG, warned the regime’s leadership of another critical moment facing the nation.  Addressing his followers on 23 May 2013, he spoke of his great concern for the crippled Iranian economy, the imminent risk of a Western-backed Israeli  invasion, and debates underway in the United States Congress on the disintegration of Iran–Baluchistan and Azerbaijan in particular—which placed the continued existence of the regime in jeopardy. To the crowd, he explained, “I met the leader and said to him that I will not run for the Presidency if he has someone else in mind. However, considering the crucial moment, I decided to run.”  

At the same meeting, Rafsanjani also emphasized the necessity of opening Iran to Western investment. He noted, “During my presidency, Westerners called me the ‘easy man,’ because it didn't take me long to open up Iran to the foreigners. We can return to the same policies (opening up to the West) again.”

After being disqualified by the Council of Guardians, Rafsanjani backed his protégé, Hassan Rouhani for presidency, opening the way for Iran’s resumed dialogue with the West.

It is not yet clear whether Iran’s new nuclear diplomacy is strategic or merely a tactic to buy time to build a nuclear device. Whether tactical or long-term, the occurrence of dialogue between Iran and the international community should be interpreted as a positive signal regarding the return of a degree of moderation and pragmatism Iranian politics after eight years of Ahamadinejad’s radicalism.

With that said, hardliners continue to challenge the domestic and foreign policies of the moderate Rouhani and continually seek the opportunity to return to power. This is primarily because they see the ideological foundations of the Islamic revolution at odds with the policy of international engagement favoured by Rouhani and his administration.  The struggle between the two groups will, I contend, further complicate Iran’s internal political dynamics and lead to yet another conflagration. And once again and in spite of his advancing years, Rafsanjani’s role of the “easy man” will be put to the test.