Postponing and also pursuing a political battle with former President Hashemi Rafsanjani — and thus with his protégé, President Rouhani — other leaders in Iran’s regime have cancelled a key election.
The 86-member Assembly of Experts, which chooses the Supreme Leader and has the nominal authority to remove him, was to convene on September 3 to choose a successor to its head Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi Kani, who has been in a coma since a heart attack in June.
However, on Friday a hardline Assembly member, Tehran Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, said the vote has been cancelled.
Khatami said that, as Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani is still alive, his deputy Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi will be acting chairman.
With the appointment of Shahroudi, a former head of judiciary, Rafsanjani’s critics are hoping to block the return of the former President to leadership of the Assembly.
Rafsanjani headed the body from 2007 to 2011 when he lost to Mahdavi Kani in a regularly-scheduled election. At the time, the defeat was seen as a punishment for Rafsanjani for his defense of mass protests after the disputed 2009 Presidential vote, and the possible end of his political career.
However, that career has not only continued but taken on new life with the election of Rouhani, and Rafsanjani’s supporters have been predicting triumph in the September vote. Even Ahmad Khatami, in a TV interview last month, admitted that one of the leading options for Mahdavi Kani’s replacement was the return of the former President.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani has tested the hardliners and his own position with initiatives beyond the support of the Government. On the foreign policy front, he has trumpeted engagement with Saudi Arabia. Even more importantly — and provocatively — he approached
the Supreme Leader for the release of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard from their 3 1/2 years of strict house arrest.
The sudden decision to suspend the election was preceded by high-profile criticism of Rafsanjani. Javan newspaper, linked to the Revolutionary Guards, published an interview with hardline Ayatollah Abolghasem Khazali accusing Rafsanjani of cooperation with the Supreme Leader’s enemies. Referring to Mahdavi Kani’s condition, Khazali said, “In such situations someone like Rafsanjani should not be the head of the assembly.”
Assembly member Ayatollah Mohammad Momen even suggested that an age limit for candidates be imposed so the 80-year-old Rafsanjani could not win an election.
Beyond the Assembly election, the question of Rafsanjani risks a fissure in the highest levels of the Iranian system. Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani is sympathetic to the views of the former President and a prominent role of him in the regime; however, Larijani’s brother, head of of judiciary Sadegh Larijani, is more hostile to Rafsanjani.
That division is mirrored in recent political disputes, notably the defeat of the Government this week with Parliament’s dismissal of Science Minister Reza Faraji Dana, against the wishes of Ali Larijani.
Meanwhile, Rafsanjani’s critics will pursue other avenues to keep pressure on him. The trial of his son Mehdi Hashemi on charges of financial impropriety and electoral manipulation, stemming from the 2009 Presidential election, resumes in September. Rafsanjani’s elder daughter Fatemeh Hashemi, been called to court this weekend on charges of “insulting and accusing the top officials of the country” — she faces a six-month prison sentence, imposed last winter but then appealed.
Rafsanjani’s younger daughter Faezeh served a six-month sentence in 2012-2013 for “propaganda against the State”.