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Iran between a pragmatic pseudo-liberal and a theocratic hardliner

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Khamenei-Rafsandjani

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is thought to be a pragmatic conservative, ready to do whatever is necessary to protect mostly his own interests. In a 1999 sermon at the Tehran University he praised the government for using force to suppress student demonstrations. On July 17, 2009 , his highly anticipated speech at the Friday prayer satisfied neither the green opposition movement of the youth in the streets of Tehran nor did it rehabilitate his arch-enemy Ahmadinejad and his role in the most recent elections.

Rafsandjani is walking a tightrope in trying to preserve his influence and keeping pressure on Ahmadinejad and his supporters and at the same time not to alienate the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On the one hand he is a supporter of freedom of expression and civil society, and on the other hand he founded the radical Ansar-e-Hezbollah movement in Iran. In 1999 Hezbollah was involved in violent attacks on student protesters at anti-government demonstrations which lasted for about a week and resulted in a number of students being severely injured, some paralyzed and even murdered.

During his Friday prayer Rafsandjani spoke of doubt that has begrudged the people of Iran in this bitter era after the election. He suggested in order to return the trust to the people all, including the system, government, security forces, police and the people should move in line with the law. At this time it is worth mentioning that it was Rafsandjani and other Mousavi supporters who themselves deviated from the rule of law by demanding new elections when there was no legal basis for it. During his sermon Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reminded the opposition of the importance of the rule of law: "By Allah’s favor, the presidential election was accurately held, and the current matters should be pursued legally."

It was Rafsandjani who did not adhere to the law and yet he is now stating the obvious after the fact that protesters have already taken their demands to the streets. That kind of twisting the facts is malicious to say the least. It is the makings of a pragmatic politician who sees his fortunes threatened and is now desperately trying to take advantage of frustration that is settling in among the young generation in Iran. He wants to leave the door to debate open but fails to recognize that there cannot be a reasonable debate with people taking to the streets and chanting death to the dictator from their roof tops. He fails to recognize that protestors want a revolution yet Rafsandjani wants to protect only his own interests.

How did it get to the point that the country of the Iranian revolution is almost going to be torn apart between the forces of a modern, young, moderate Iran and a theocratic, old and conservative leadership? The answer of the theocrats is to suppress freedom in an effort to contain this threat to the system. The answer of the opposition is to revolt against the regime. The losers are most certainly people of Iran, young and old, who are about to be crushed in a vice between this two gigantic millstones.

Rafsandjani who’s role in the current revolt is appalling, nevertheless is most likely the only one who could lead the country out of the current deadlock. If you are going to drown you probably have to grab whatever you get, and Rafsandjani’s pragmatism is maybe just the right thing to pull them out. In the moment the nation of Iran does not really have any alternative.

The United States, Israel and its allies are about to raise the stakes for Iran in its nuclear stand off with the west. The New York Times has floated the prospects of tough sanctions against the nation of Iran from the Obama administration. There is talk about extreme economic sanctions by cutting off Iran’s imports of gasoline and other refined oil products. Iran imports about 40 percent of its gasoline from abroad. The sanctions could be implemented soon after Obama’s deadline to revive talks on Iran’s nuclear program ends in mid-September.

In the meantime the administration is rallying its allies behind a gasoline embargo, which is supposed to change Iran’s cost-benefit analysis according to president Obama. Congress is preparing legislation that would give the president the authority to act on extreme sanction. A bill, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, has already 71 sponsors a majority in the senate and is expected to pass the house as well. US lawmakers consider this bill to arm the president with sanctions authority more appropriate than authorizing the use of military force. They seemed to have learned from the Bush debacle after all.

Of course by some stretch of imagination this energy embargo scenario could also be viewed as an act of aggression not unlike war and its use of military force. Such a draconic measure is therefore not without risk. it could further destabilize an already weakened regime in Iran and change a rather benign and contained situation into uncontrollable violence and bloodshed. This will not be enough to deter the U.S. and its allies as long as the violence remains within Iran. The U.S. has certainly a long history in such ruthless endeavors.

There is also the possibility that Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will capitalize on tough sanctions and rally his fellow countrymen behind him. Enemy number one for most Iranians is still the U.S. and sanctions will only help to reinforce anti-American sentiment in the region. After his defeat in the first Persian Gulf War Saddam Hussein was hugely unpopular, but a decade lasting of crippling sanctions transformed him into Iraqi’s favorite leader once again.

In Iran’s nuclear standoff with the west the door is slam shut, neither the U.S. nor the theocratic leadership seem ready to compromise. The only hope to open a window of negotiations is through the pragmatic conservative Ayatollah Rafsandjani. His support for a free market domestically and his moderate position internationally brings him closer to the U.S. than any of the other Iranian clerics and in stark contrast to president Ahmadinejad. It can be assumed with absolute certainty that Rafsandjani is the main force behind the opposition movement and the current mini-revolt against Ahamdinejad and the Islamic revolution itself.

The fronts in this historic struggle for dominance are clear. Leader Khamenei and Ahmadinejad stand for the integrity of the Islamic revolution and are pitted against more moderate reformers around clerical businessman Rafsandschani and Mousavi. Initially everything seemed to fall in line with the Supreme Leader almost hastily anointing his candidate Ahmadinejad as the winner of the current election. Nobody expected the president to alienate his conservative friends by promoting Rahim Mashaie to the post of vice-president.

After Khamenei signaled his anger with this choice Ahmadinejad decided to ignore the Supreme Leader’s wish for almost a week before he finally gave in and demoted Mashaie to the post of his new chief of staff. Over the course of this row with the hard line, conservative leadership in Iran several of his ministers resigned from their posts causing a major stir among the theocratic system. His opponents immediately seized the opportunity to sense unease amongst conservatives over the disputed elections, and saw there claims of election fraud confirmed.

Some have even argued that Ahmadinejad was preparing for a coup d’état to install a military dictatorship in Iran. I think this is wrong. We have no credible evidence that the president is planning such radical action against Leader Khamenei. In his defense Ahmadinejad himself characterized his relationship with Khamenei like that of a father and son, going beyond politics and administration.

Still uncertainty remains about why would Mr. Ahamdinejad provoke his closest allies at a time when his opponents are already fiercely attacking him. The most likely explanation is, he lost his nerves. In an attempt to reach out, he wanted to include more moderate forces in his new cabinet. That did not ring through with ultraconservative, hard line members in the government. Unsure about how to resolve the current dispute with the opposition and end the threat that street protests pose to the system he charged ahead and fired some of his conservative members in the government.

Though we cannot be sure about the motives, friction between Leader Khamenei and his protégé Mr. Ahmadinejad  became apparent yesterday during the official endorsement ceremony for his second term as president.  A video shot during the procedure clearly showed how awkward the two men approached each other. In another sign of turmoil major critics of the recent election, including Mr. Rafsandjani, did not participate in the endorsement. In the meantime another influential ultraconservative cleric instructed the president to consult with parliament before naming his new ministry. Indeed Ahmadinejad seems to be marginalized in his power over the influential theocrats.

Among all the accusations and problems that have befallen the nation of Iran, Rafsandjani’s influence has gained importance but is still up against the ultraconservative Supreme Leader of Iran. We can only speculate about the outcome of this confrontation but can be fairly certain about the main actors in this drama. Although his motives are questionable moral objections have to be abandoned in favor of an end that justifies the means of ending a nuclear standoff with the west. But here is the problem. Rafsandjani who can help to end this international dispute can only do so by committing treason on the Iranian revolution and risking civil war in Iran. Today’s protestors in the streets of Tehran should be fearful to get what they wished for.

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