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Rafsanjani Walks a Precipice in Iran

The president must clean up the debris left by the Khomeini era while preserving his revolutionary credentials

By Karim PakravanKarim Pakravan is a senior Middle East analyst for the First National Bank of Chicago. / November 3, 1989

SINCE the summer of 1988, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily Iranian politician whom the Western press likes to label as a ``moderate'' or ``pragmatist,'' has been on the ascendancy. His rise to power, culminating in his election last July as Iran's first president in the post-Khomeini era, has been reflected in a number of important events: Iran's acceptance in August 1988 of a cease-fire in the Gulf war, the surprisingly smooth transition after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death on June 3, the revision of the constitution, and the choice of a working Cabinet dominated by ``technocrats'' and excluding key figures of the more radical faction.

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But who is Mr. Rafsanjani, what does he want, and will he be able to succeed?

President Rafsanjani is a middle-level cleric and a rich landowner (reputedly the largest pistachio grower in Iran) who has demonstrated a talent for survival through 10 years of revolution, turmoil, and war.

He has achieved this through a combination of realism, ruthlessness, and a complete lack of scruples.

Over the years, he skillfully manipulated his position as Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and his close personal relation with Ayatollah Khomeini to block potential adversaries and build short-term tactical alliances with different factions of the Islamic regime. He moved all over the political spectrum in the process.

Some myths about Rafsanjani should be dispelled. He can certainly be called a ``realist'' or a ``pragmatist,'' but the ``moderate'' label does not stick very well.

HE is certainly no liberal on the domestic political scene. He was a major force behind the brutal repression of the uprising by the left-wing Mujahedeen Khalq in 1981.

Thousands have been executed since his de facto assumption of leadership in the summer of 1988 - most of them for alleged drug-related offenses.

On the foreign policy side he has shown realism, making several attempts to end Iran's diplomatic isolation. A drive to rebuild links with the West in August 1988 was thwarted by the Salman Rushdie affair, and then by the hostage crisis in Lebanon.

He has been more successful with the Soviet Union, to which he paid an official visit in June, further enhancing his stature at home and abroad. Iranian officials have also expressed their willingness to improve relations with the country's oil-rich Arab neighbors.

Rafsanjani has attempted to use the hostage crisis in Lebanon as an instrument to reopen a dialogue with the United States on the broader issue of US-Iranian relations.

Neither the US nor Iran, however, have expressed any willingness to initiate negotiations. Nevertheless, both sides have defined general conditions for a renewal of relations.

What does Rafsanjani want? As the British news magazine The Economist put it in a recent editorial, Rafsanjani is in the same position as Mikhail Gorbachev and South African President Frederik de Klerk: ``All three have inherited a system headed toward collapse; and all three know that it has to be changed.''

Ten years of war and revolution have battered Iran's economy.

According to official data, industrial-capacity utilization stands at about 50 percent and unemployment at 17 percent. Official statistics show that prices have almost tripled since 1980. In fact, the situation is much worse.

Not only is the economy in shambles, but there is a complete lack of confidence in the government's economic policy. Furthermore, a brutal repression has had tens of thousands of victims and forced millions into exile. A senseless war has left about 1 million casualties and caused enormous material damage.

These circumstances have alienated most segments of Iranian society - even the so-called ``oppressed classes,'' which are turning away from the regime.

Thus, the major priority is economic reconstruction, without which the Islamic regime cannot expect to survive in the long term.