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In Iran, Critic Leaves Key Post

March 10, 2011

The Wall Street Journal, 10 March 2011: Iran’s highest-ranking moderate official was ousted Tuesday from his position at the head of the country’s powerful clerical committee, a move that appeared to consolidate power in the hands of the Islamic republic’s hard-line rulers.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president and a critic of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, withdrew his candidacy to lead the 86-seat Assembly of Experts, an elected body of senior clerics who have the power to name, supervise and remove Iran’s supreme leader.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s surprise exit came as Tehran faces renewed pressure from opposition protesters, whose mass demonstrations after disputed 2009 presidential elections were largely snuffed out a year ago. Now, emboldened by other antiregime uprisings around the Middle East, protesters have returned to Iran’s streets. Witnesses said fewer people turned out Tuesday than in recent weeks and were met by a heavy presence of riot police, who at times swung batons at passersby.

Mr. Rafsanjani, 77 years old, was once considered one of the untouchable pillars of the Islamic Republic, a senior politician who straddled conservative and reform camps and often acted as a pragmatic buffer between sides. He was the most powerful official to side with the challenger of the 2009 elections.

But he hasn’t been widely popular among opposition supporters. Many of these people consider him a pragmatic conservative who has stopped short of change if he felt it threatened the object of his ultimate loyalty, the Islamic Republic.

Even so, the elimination of this highly placed critic alarmed many Iranians. “The hard-liners are one step closer to total control of the country,” one person wrote on a Facebook page devoted to Iranian protests. Others said Mr. Rafsanjani should have been a more forceful voice against Tehran’s rulers.

For weeks, conservatives in the Assembly of Experts lobbied for the ouster of Mr. Rafsanjani at the end of his term, questioning his loyalty to the government. Last week, 50 assembly members wrote an open letter asking the hard-liners’ preferred candidate, ailing cleric Ayatollah Mohamad Reza Mahdavi Kani, to accept the nomination.

Mr. Rafsanjani said last week he had no plans to step aside and said rumors of Mr. Mahdavi Kani’s nomination were false. But in a turnaround, he withdrew his candidacy Tuesday. Mr. Mahdavi Kani was elected his successor, with 63 votes.

Analysts say Mr. Rafsanjani’s elimination dims already-faint hope that Iran’s leadership would be open to hearing opposing voices. Opposition members had hoped Mr. Rafsanjani could help influence Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to moderate his support for Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has been criticized for cracking down on opponents, mismaging the economy and provocing the international community.

“It’s a very dangerous sign for Iran,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iran studies at Stanford University. “They [hard-liners] are saying we are the top and we don’t care if we have a coalition—no more variety of opinions in the regime.”

Mr. Rafsanjani’s exit, analysts say, also grants hard-liners an open hand to name Iran’s next supreme leader. Mr. Rafsanjani had been seen as opposing the appointment of any hard-line supreme leader, these people say.

It would fall to the assembly to choose a successor to 72-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei, who is appointed for life. Although no candidates have been officially discussed, two names have surfaced as favorites—Mr. Khamenei’s son, Mojtabah, a close ally of Mr. Ahmadinejad and the powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps; and Ayatollah Mohamad Taghi Mesbah Yazdi, an ultraconservative cleric seen as Mr. Ahmadinejad’s spiritual guide.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s split from Iran’s government began shortly after the 2009 election, the results of which many Iranians claimed were rigged in Mr. Ahmadinejad’s favor. Mr. Rafsanjani supported challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi and criticized the government’s at-times bloody crackdown against those who publicly protested the results. He was subsequently banned from delivering the symbolic Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, as he had done for nearly three decades.

Mr. Ahmadinejad has openly attacked Mr. Rafsanjani, notably during his election campaign, accusing his family of being financially corrupt and funding the opposition. Mr. Rafsanjani has denied the charges and said he and his family lead a simple life.

In the past few weeks, the state-owned television station broadcast images of pro-government protesters chanting, “Death to Hashemi.”

The news of Mr. Rafsanjani’s exit came as protesters turned out around Iran Tuesday, now a regular day of protest there.

Female activists led the protest in honor of International Women’s Day, calling for equal rights and for the release of many women activists. Dozens of female lawyers, journalists and activists are currently jailed, including the wives of opposition leaders. Dozens more have gone into exile, including Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Several thousand men and women held a sit-in at the Mother Square in Tehran, witnesses said. The square is known for its sculpture of a mother and child, the artistic work of Mr. Mousavi’s wife, Zahra Rahnavard.

The protests were smaller than others those of previous weeks. Witnesses said security forces blocked gatherings. A video posted on YouTube showed riot police lining the sidewalk in downtown Tehran and hitting passersby with batons, shouting: “Don’t stop. Walk away.”

Mr. Mousavi and fellow opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi disappeared along with their wives after anti-government protests erupted in Iran on Feb. 14. In statements, family members said they were arrested and taken into detention. Iran’s government said they were under house arrest and isolated from contact with outsiders.

The official website for Mr. Mousavi, called Kalameh, said Tuesday that Mr. Mousavi and his wife weren’t in detention, but under house arrest. Their whereabouts for the past three weeks wasn’t immediately clear.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, a former lawmaker, has served as a one of the prominent female faces of the opposition, attending rallies and speaking on behalf of women’s rights and more social freedoms.

She was briefly detained at an anti-government rally two weeks ago and, according to online videos, came under verbal attack by a group of plainclothes Basij militia who called her a “whore” and shouted “Death to Hashemi.”

After stepping down from the clerical assembly’s leadership Tuesday, Mr. Rafsanjani remained a member.

One of his sons, Mehdi Hashemi, is living in exile and Iran’s judiciary has announced he will be arrested upon return for charges of corruption and involvement with the opposition. Another son, Mohsen, resigned last week from the head of Tehran’s metro company in public disagreements with the government.

In his last speech at the assembly, Mr. Rafsanjani spoke as if he were already retired from politics. “I would like to devote my time to writing my memoirs and not run for any more public office,” he said.


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