Rafsanjani reappears on Iran’s political stage?

Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, chairman of the Expediency Council and former chairman of the Assembly of Experts, president, speaker of parliament, and deputy commander-in-chief in the Iran-Iraq War, has become increasingly visible in the last several weeks. Earlier this week Rafsanjani was seen entering the first session of the Ninth Majlis side-by-side with political rival President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a move some speculated may have been intended for political effect. His speeches and views have also been frequently included in the Iranian media – which often reflects the regime’s thinking. However, his most striking gesture yet may be a speech given on 29 May 2012 at an event entitled “National Gathering: Developments in the Middle East and the Future of the Regional Order”. While officially discussing changes in the regional order following the Arab Spring, Rafsanjani at times appeared to be making veiled criticisms of the current state of affairs in the Islamic Republic.

For example, his speech touched on what he perceived as being some of the principal causes of the Arab Spring, including dictatorship, a lack of political parties, poverty, and weak social security, all of which he suggested could shake the foundations of a regime. His words appeared to be indirectly referring to the situation inside Iran as well.

He also discussed whether the Islamic Republic was a model for the countries of the Arab Spring, a claim raised by many officials in Iran. His comments appeared to be a subtle refutation of such claims:

“If we were successful and acted more correctly than we have, and did not have certain problems, perhaps this revolution [referring to the Islamic Revolution of 1979] would quickly become a model for other countries.”

He said that rather than just calling the popular uprisings in the Arab world the “Islamic Awakening”, the Islamic Republic’s official terminology for these events, it would also be appropriate to call them the “Arab Spring” or “popular revolutions”, once again subtly critiquing the regime in Iran.

Finally, he touched on the information revolution and the impact it had had on the recent uprisings in the region, saying that such possibilities had not existed during the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He commented that because of the Internet and satellites, governments could no longer control the information their people consumed once they gained access to it:

“We are witnessing how a single Facebook page that has no cost for people acts like several televisions and radios that can affect millions of people, and one video that is taken via mobile phone spreads around the world. This is a blessing for the world.”

He suggested that although some would not like these new communication tools, if humanity desired to fight “injustice, oppression, cruelty, and tyranny” such tools would be necessary. Praising Facebook is a very bold statement for an elder statesman like Rafsanjani to make given that Facebook, alongside many other social-networking websites, is banned in Iran.

Editor’s note: It is unclear whether Rafsanjani’s recent higher profile in the Iranian media is a sign of his public rehabilitation after being sidelined by hardliners as early as the 2005 presidential election. This, alongside his veiled critique of the current state of affairs in the Islamic Republic, may be a sign that he and his allies are slowly regaining the balance of power in Iran’s factional politics at the expense of hardliners.

Rafsanjani’s possible re-entry into the national spotlight comes at a sensitive time for the Islamic Republic, which is plagued by domestic economic and political woes and punitive economic sanctions and isolation abroad. His re-emergence may be in line with a possible change of direction for the regime that is under consideration if the Moscow round of talks in June are successfully concluded. Success could, under the right circumstances, lead to the resolution of outstanding issues between Iran and United States in the long-run. Rafsanjani is aligned with moderate forces within the regime who favour negotiations over confrontation, the latter being the preferred position of hardliners who have dominated much of foreign policy-making in the Islamic Republic over the last decade.

Such an optimistic scenario is of course at this point mere speculation. The result of talks in Moscow and the balance of power in the Ninth Majlis, among other factors, will likely give us further clues about Rafsanjani’s recent speeches and the regime’s direction.