Rafsanjani Is Major Influence In Iran

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is exercising influence from behind the scenes in the aftermath of the country's disputed presidential elections. Journalist Robin Wright talks with Renee Montagne about Rafsanjani.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

An update now on this week's big story. Iran's top electoral body says there was no major fraud in the country's disputed presidential election. The Guardian Council refused to nullify the result, though it has allowed that there were voting irregularities in 50 districts.

Iran's hard line incumbent, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was named the winner and the widespread protests that followed has sparked the biggest challenges to Iran's leadership in 30 years.

DAVID GREENE, host:

In this part of the program we're going to hear about a man who's been one of the most influential figures in Iran since its revolution. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. Before that he was closely linked to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, and when Khomeini died in 1989 it was Rafsanjani who led deliberations about who would replace the country's spiritual leader.

Here he is in a recent BBC series recalling his role at that crucial moment in Iran's history.

Mr. ALI AKBAR HASHEMI RAFSANJANI (Former President, Iran): (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: What Rafsanjani is saying here, is that our problem was that the imam was everything. He's using a term that Iranians use for Khomeini. Rafsanjani adds: Nobody in the country could fully take on his role.

Today, Rafsanjani is once again believed to be exercising influence. During the campaign he supported the opposition candidate, Mir-Hossien Mousavi, and his family was so identified with the opposition that his daughter and several other relatives were briefly detained. We're joined now by journalist Robin Wright, who's reported on Iran since 1973. She's on the line from Washington.

Good morning.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Journalist): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about Rafsanjani and how he fits into Iran's post-revolution politics.

Ms. WRIGHT: Rafsanjani is probably the most enduring politician in Iran. He was speaker of parliament during the first decade. During the second he was the president of Iran. He also orchestrated the change in the power structure after the imam's death, when Iran dropped the prime ministership and introduced an executive president. A job he was the first one to take.

At the time there were many in Iran who believed that this was an effort to also change the system so that the most powerful man in Iran was the president, or at least the equal of the supreme leader. And he was the one who actually also orchestrated putting Ali Khamenei into the job he has now held for 20 years as supreme leader.

MONTAGNE: So very powerful and very entrenched. What are his formal positions today, if he has any?

Ms. WRIGHT: He does, indeed. And he has repeatedly maneuvered himself into very powerful positions. Iran's presidency is only a two-term limit, and so he has since then taken over a charge of the two top clerical bodies, the Assembly of Experts, which oversees the supreme leader's job. There are 86 clerics, and they're elected by the people. He ran for that job, and he is now the one who oversees the body that oversees the supreme leader.

He's also head of something called the Expediency Council, which in Iran's convoluted system is a body that was created, in large part, by his own political maneuvering to oversee any disputes between the Council of Guardians and Parliament and to resolve any disputes between other bodies that can't work themselves out.

MONTAGNE: Although you - does that put him in a position to actually lead some sort of overthrow of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, in the chaos in Iran today, there are lots of conspiracy theories about what Mr. Rafsanjani might be doing in the background, whether he is trying to use his position to mobilize support among the clerics on the Assembly of Experts, but also in Qom, the theological center, to try to undermine Khamenei's position, potentially even to threatening him. Now these are now rumors, nothing is confirmed. But it's clear that Rafsanjani is opposed to Mr. Ahmadinejad's reelection.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, President Ahmadinejad is a protege if you will, of Khamenei, the supreme leader.

Ms. WRIGHT: Well…

MONTAGNE: Well, at least it's his candidate.

Ms. WRIGHT: Ahmadinejad appears to have had the support of the supreme leader, but the supreme leader also had signaled that he could live with Mr. Mousavi when he went to see the family, when Mousavi's father was ill and the picture was released throughout the country.

But yes, the hard liners, the principlists as they call themselves, those who defend the principles of the revolution, were backing Ahmadinejad. But Rafsanjani is an interesting character because we all call him the Teflon mullah. He has managed to maneuver Iranian politics, often in his own preferred direction.

MONTAGNE: Now could all of this indicate a big split between these powerful clerics who run Iran?

Ms. WRIGHT: The most important part of the crisis today is the split among the very clerics who walked arm in arm, who went to prison together against the Shah and to bring down a system of government that had prevailed for 2,500 years. This is where the future of this crisis will most importantly play out.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And we've been talking with Robin Wright, who's been covering Iran since 1973. She's the author of "Dreams and Shadows: the Future of the Middle East."

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