Iran’s judiciary sentenced Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to 10 years’ imprisonment on June 11.

Judiciary Spokesman Mohseni Ejei confirmed initial reports by Fars News Agency, which announced that the Revolutionary Court of Appeals had upheld the conviction. As news emerged, Iranian media and social networks were flooded commentary, conjecture, and predictions about what might happen next.  

The lower court had sentenced Rafsanjani to a total of 15 years’ imprisonment on various charges. According to Ejei, he received a total sentence of 25 years at the appeals court: 10 years for embezzlement, 10 years for bribery and five years for a crime against “security.” But based on Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, the sentences were merged into one 10-year prison term.

The case began three years ago, and has gone through a number of phases. Rafsanjani returned to Tehran on September 23, 2012 after living outside Iran for three years. He was arrested the day after he arrived back in the country, and released on a bail amount of around $3.5 million. During his interrogation, hardliner media reported widely on political, financial and security charges against Rafsanjani.

In the second phase, which began on January 9, 2013, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh took over the case, replacing Nasser Saraj, who was transferred to the General Inspection Office. Hardliner media applauded the decision, not least because Saraj had a patchy reputation, especially among Iran’s more conservative elite. At this time, the media was quick to focus on the financial and security aspects of the case, downplaying the political dimensions. It was a clever move, motivated by a desire to make the public think Iran’s political and religious elite were determined to stamp out corruption – and steer them away from thinking they were bent on sabotaging the Rafsanjani family. It cast the Iranian judiciary in a non-partisan light, something it also enjoyed in the cases against Mohammad Reza Rahimi, former president Ahmadinejad’s first vice president, and Hamid Baqai, his executive vice president.

The lower Revolutionary Court issued its verdict on February 13, 2015, during which Rafsanjani was cleared of espionage. The judiciary has emerged well, stating with confidence that it is committed to fighting corruption.

 

Political Fallout

At the same time, the political repercussions of such a high profile case are enormous.

On April 7, one of Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani’s lawyers told the media that the judge was not working independently and had been ordered to reach the verdict. A few days before the final verdict was issued, Shargh newspaper published an interview with Rafsanjani’s father, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who explicitly told the newspaper that he had talked about his son’s case with both the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the Judiciary Chief Sadegh Larijani. He insisted the judge should reach a verdict, without interference from the Supreme Leader or any other senior authority. Larijani responded angrily, insisting that judges operate independently. Pressuring a judge, he said, was a crime punishable by law.  

Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani’s lawyer later reported that his client’s mother, Effat Hashemi, had urged her son to appeal the lower court verdict. Despite this, it would appear that both father and son believe that the court’s verdict had been dictated from above.

In recent months, several Iranian parliamentarians have lashed out at Rafsanjani Senior, who is currently Chairman of the Expediency Council. They claim that, because he is unhappy with the verdict against his son, he is creating a tense political atmosphere, raising controversial issues, including changing the structure of the country’s leadership by recommending the Islamic Republic be run by a council instead a single leader.

But Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s opponents have no real incentive to lure him into a fight at this particular juncture in time. After at least 15 years of effort — across political, security and legal fronts — they have accumulated a large amount of what they see as incriminating evidence against Rafsanjani and his family. Hardliners are well aware of the special affection the Expediency Council chairman has for his son, and have repeatedly asked him not to sacrifice the interests of the revolution to protect him. Now, despite Rafsanjani’s persistence, they have him where they want him. They will not let go of this advantage.

 

Are there Options for Rafsanjani?

So can Rafsanjani do anything about the verdict against his son?

The family could take further action in the courts. Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani can ask the judiciary chief to order a review of the case and how it has been handled. But, under the present conditions, this can only buy time and will simply postpone the sentence being executed. And considering the long-time antagonistic relationship between Judicial Chief Sadegh Larijani and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, it is unlikely that such a request would be granted, or even considered.

The Rafsanjanis can also appeal to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. But this comes with its own difficulties. When Gholam Hossein Karbaschi, the former reformist mayor of Tehran, was imprisoned in May 2009 on corruption charges, he served about seven months of his two-year sentence before Ayatollah Khamenei granted him a pardon. This followed widespread calls for Karbaschi’s release, including from almost half of the Iranian parliament. Even if the Rafsanjanis lobby the Leader, they can only do so after Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani has served part of his sentence.

With all of this in mind, it would not be surprising if Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani continues with his current tactics: launching into fresh debates about next year’s parliamentary elections, the future of the Iranian leadership, the judiciary, violations against human rights, relations with the United States and so on. It is undoubtedly a bid to irritate hardliners, especially those who have taken against the Rafsanjani family’s influence. Such a strategy will continue to seriously rattle the domestic political scene.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had hoped that after his son returned to Iran he could fix things for him, healing old wounds through political and judicial lobbying. Instead, new wounds have been opened, and they will not heal easily. As a statesman, Rafsanjani has shown considerable patience over the last three decades. But he has also shown that he can be vindictive and cause damage.

There is one last option. Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani could choose to take refuge in his father’s home, preventing security agents from arresting him. Rejection of judicial verdicts does have a precedent in Iran. Ayatollah Montazeri, once the designated successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, is the best known example. But everyone who has chosen this path has paid the price.

This puts the former president and Expediency Council chairman in a difficult, ambiguous position. He is on the defensive. But it is possible that if he accepts the imprisonment of his son, it could actually prove to be an advantage for him — an advantage he can then use to exact revenge.

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