Where Has ex-Iran President Rafsanjani Vanished To?

Once avid supporter of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei may now be plotting his downfall.

If anyone can serve as the ultimate barometer of the political mood in Iran, and knows what to say without looking like someone who has stepped out of line, it is Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, says Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA intelligence analyst and Iran researcher at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in his book "The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict between Iran and America" (Random House, 2004).

During the past month Rafsanjani has stepped strikingly "out of line." Three days before the elections he made public a letter he sent to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that included a sharp complaint against him. "The supreme leader has seen fit to remain silent in the face of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's accusations against me," wrote Rafsanjani. He was referring to Ahmadinejad's remarks during a televised debate with rival presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, in which Ahmadinejad accused Rafsanjani of having made millionaires of members of his family since the Islamic revolution in 1979, and accused Mousavi of being supported by "corrupt politicians like Rafsanjani."

A week later, in his Friday sermon, Khamenei attacked Ahmadinejad for his remarks against Rafsanjani and, very angrily, "suggested" that anyone who has complaints about Rafsanjani should submit them to a court and not make false accusations in public. However, he immediately added that even though he has known Rafsanjani for over 50 years, Ahmadinejad is closer to his heart.

A few days later, when the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran were at their height, Rafsanjani's daughter Faezeh and a number of other family members were arrested, but they were released within two days. During this time, Rafsanjani's voice was not heard. However, Rafsanjani's silence is more thunderous in Iran than anyone else's voice, and if anyone can attack Khamenei directly, it is him. The rumors were that he had gone to the holy city of Qom in order to organize a revolt of senior clerics, not only against the election but also against Khamenei himself.

If there is a channel ripe for a revolution in Iran, it is not in the demonstrating masses, who are mustering tremendous courage in face of the violent suppression by the police and volunteer vigilantes who operate under instructions from the Revolutionary Guard. The revolution will have to come via the same ayatollahs who brought about the 1979 revolution, through the system itself.

This is giving Khamenei cause to worry. Within the ranks of the clerical-political elite that rules Iran, Rafsanjani, as that sensitive "political barometer," is registering the scent of the wounded animal that can now be brought down. If the assessments coming out of Iran can be relied upon, Rafsanjani will not be content only with ridding the political arena of Ahmadinejad, but also aims to become the country's spiritual leader himself and to depose Khamenei, whose appointment he aided 20 years ago.

Rafsanjani, who has twice served as president of Iran and was the speaker of parliament, was also one of the people closest to Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the Islamic revolution in Iran. In the 1980s, when Iran was at war with Iraq and Mousavi, the candidate who lost in the recent elections, was prime minister under Khamenei's presidency, Rafsanjani had far easier access to Khomeini than the two other men combined.

His closeness to Khomeini afforded him tremendous influence on the decision-making process in Iran, and even more importantly he was considered to speak for Khomeini even after the latter's death in 1989. When the time came to appoint Khomeini's successor, Rafsanjani acted tirelessly to have Khamenei appointed.

Contrary to the position of important clerics in Qom, Rafsanjani, who had already demonstrated his skill in the twists and turns of Iranian politics, made certain that Khamenei was given the title ayatollah, enabling him to become the supreme leader. If there is anyone to whom Khamenei owes his position, it is Rafsanjani, who is now also the man who can depose him.

Is there a chance this will happen? Rafsanjani serves as chairman of the two strongest political bodies in the country. One is the Expediency Discernment Council, which has the role of finding compromises between parliamentary legislation and the position of the Council of Guardians, which represents Khamenei's positions absolutely. The other is the Assembly of Experts, which appoints or dismisses the supreme leader. The chairman can control the agenda for deliberations and direct the decisions, but Rafsanjani's real power lies in his ability to set political traps that will ultimately allow him to control the decision-making processes in these councils.

However, Rafsanjani has also had some resounding failures, the most important being the previous election, when Ahmadinejad defeated him. In the years prior to that election Rafsanjani had skipped back and forth between reformism and conservatism, and did not manage to brand himself in a way that would enable either conservatives or reformists to vote for him.

The affluent pistachio merchant, whose personal wealth has been estimated at more than a $1 billion, has always been considered the West's hope, because in his public statements he supports relations between Iran and the United States, has acted to release American hostages from Lebanon and was one of the key figures behind the Irangate affair in the 1980s. However, Iranian intellectuals have not forgotten that in his day about 100 journalists and intellectuals opposed to the regime were murdered.

Until it becomes clear where the chips in the political game have fallen, Iran is continuing to live from one week to the next. The second stage of checking the ballot boxes is slated to be completed on Sunday. From the first inspection it emerged that in some ballot boxes there was a 100 percent discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the number of people who actually voted. While the Council of Guardians is continuing to check the ballot boxes, the efforts to find a political compromise will also continue.

The streets of Iran have calmed down in recent days, partly because of the brutal response and partly because Mousavi has instructed his supporters not to enter into confrontation with the security forces. The result for now is that the demonstrations have changed from a catalyst that awakened the political process into a reined-in threat that could renew its activity at any moment.

Khamenei, who is now at the most fragile point in his 20 years as supreme leader, will have to pay some sort of price. Suddenly it appears that the lowest price from Khamenei's perspective would be to ask Ahmadinejad to resign and to ask the Council of Guardians to decide who will become president or declare new elections.

However, what seems logical to rivals or to assessors from outside is not necessarily the conclusion that Khamenei will reach. He is not one to tremble in fear of Rafsanjani, and he, too, is capable of twisting arms and putting both the security forces and "his" clerics to work on his behalf - the ones who are liable to lose their influence if there is the reform - never mind revolution - towards which Rafsanjani is moving. Rafsanjani is perhaps the ultimate barometer for understanding the political pressures in Iran, but not every strong movement on the seismograph means an earthquake will wreak destruction.