Iran’s presidency has been a strange institution ever since it was established a year into Iran’s Islamic Revolution. While Iran’s early presidents were meant to represent the Islamic Republic to the world, they could scarcely compete with the powerful and imposing personality of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who claimed to represent God on earth. Since Khomeini’s death in 1989, Iranian presidents have established themselves as the international face of an ostensibly democratic Iran, but have remained subordinate to the absolute power and socially conservative vision of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. And while all of Iran’s presidents have challenged their supreme leader’s powers in some way, most have paid a high political price. Now, ahead of Iran's elections on May 19, IranWire looks back at Iran's past seven presidencies.
When Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president of Iran on August 3, 1989, exactly two months after the death of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he was widely seen as the most powerful figure in the country. A close associate of Khomeini and a founding member of the Islamic Republic Party, he had been speaker of parliament since 1980 and Tehran’s Friday prayer leader since 1981. He had led Iran’s war effort against Iraq and had helped convince Khomeini to end the war in 1988. As a member of the Expediency Council, he had powers of government oversight. As a member of the Assembly of Experts—the group of Islamic clerics responsible for choosing Iran’s supreme leader—he had played kingmaker to his longtime ally, Ali Khamenei, making him Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader.
Despite Khamenei’s lofty title, it would not have occurred to many Iranians in 1989 that Khamenei—who lacked Khomeini’s dark charisma and religious standing—would emerge as the dominant partner. As Khamenei’s biographer Mehdi Khalaji puts it, “Rafsanjani was not Khamenei’s president, Khamenei was Rafsanjani’s supreme leader.” Rafsanjani, says historian Ervand Abrahamian, likely saw the role of the supreme leader as something like what Khomeini had promised it would be when he was in exile in France before the revolution. “Rafsanjani’s notion of the velayat-e faqih, [the “guardianship of the jurist,” as Khomeini’s conception of Islamic rule was known] was someone who would be more of a hands-off supervisor.”
Rebuilding the Islamic Republic, but for Whom?
Khomeini’s death afforded Rafsanjani and Khamenei opportunities the founder would never have allowed them. Whereas Khomeini had repeatedly upheld a balance of powers between Khamenei’s presidency and the premiership of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the two allies could now do away with the prime minister’s role in Iranian politics, and with it, much of the power of the “Islamic left” that continually pushed for greater state control of Iran’s economy. Whereas Khomeini had famously remarked that, “the economy is for donkeys,” Rafsanjani wanted to pursue a project of privatization and economic liberalization. Whereas Khomeini had maintained bitter enmity with some Sunni Muslim leaders, Rafsanjani wanted to quietly repair Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors.
But Rafsanjani’s presidential aims also distracted him from Khamenei’s growing ambitions. “The supreme leader’s office under Khomeini was quite a small office,” Abrahamian says, “but the faqih’s office really took off after Khomeini’s death.” Whereas the loyalty of Iran’s revolutionary institutions to Khomeini had been almost axiomatic, Khamenei realized that he needed to build institutional support. “During the Khamenei period,” Abrahamian says, “it started to become almost a state within a state, with tentacles through which Khamenei could control the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij paramilitaries, and the mosque preachers. Presumably, Rafsanjani would have realized that Khamenei was building his own bureaucracy.”
As Rafsanjani busied himself rebuilding western-Iranian cities bombed by Iraq and repairing shattered oil infrastructure, as he set up free trade zones and promoted the private sector, he enjoyed Khamenei’s public support. But in Tehran, Khamenei was securing his own position. “From 1989, Rafsanjani made two fatal mistakes,” Khalaji says. “On one hand, he left the Revolutionary Guards and the army to Khamenei, and, at Khamenei’s request, he allowed the Revolutionary Guards to get involved in Iran’s economy as contractors as managers and so on. Gradually, the Revolutionary Guards became very rich and powerful. On the other hand, he left to Khamenei the intelligence organizations. Khamenei was smart enough to use them, along with state TV and media, to control the economy, politics, and culture.”
Partners in Terror
Whatever rivalries may have unfolded behind the scenes, Rafsanjani and Khamenei had few public quarrels and were widely seen to be acting in tandem. And for all Rafsanjani’s efforts to court IMF loans and build economic ties with the European Union, he was not about to speak out when his fellow revolutionaries took actions outraged the international community.
From 1989, Iran carried out a series of assassinations abroad, killing the Kurdish leader Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in Paris in July that year, and Shahpour Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of pre-revolutionary Iran, and his colleague, National Front politician Abdorrahman Boroumand, in the same city in 1991.
In 1992, German investigators traced the killing of four Kurdish opposition figures in Berlin to a group of Iranian officials that included Khamenei and Rafsanjani.
Argentine officials implicated Iran and its Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 30 people, and the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center, which killed 85.
On the domestic scene, meanwhile, Rafsanjani presided over political repression, notably the violent putting-down of a series of workers’ riots in 1992, 1994 and 1995. Rafsanjani, Abrahamian says, took most of the blame for political repression, as he did for anything that went wrong with the economy. Early into his second term, which began in 1993, Rafsanjani faced the added obstacle of new US sanctions. In 1995, US president Bill Clinton signed executive orders banning US trade with Iran. In 1996, the US Congress introduced the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which hindered foreign investment. Whatever happened, Rafsanjani, like all his successors, was positioned to draw fire for the supreme leader, and thereby to shore up the system established by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Towards the end of his second term, Rafsanjani expressed an interest in remaining president for a third term but Khamenei, Abrahamian says, would not permit that. While Khamenei favored the conservative speaker of parliament Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri as Iran’s future president, Rafsanjani backed the reformist former culture minister, Mohammad Khatami, thus restyling himself as a reformist kingmaker. Khatami became president in August 1997.
“Khamenei tried to sideline Rafsanjani without eliminating him,” Abrahamian says. “It would have been hard for Khamenei to eliminate him because he had been so important in the revolution. Also, everyone knew that Rafsanjani had been instrumental in getting Khamenei the position of supreme leader.” Although he would never hold the presidency again, Rafsanjani remained a member of the Assembly of Experts, and chairman of the Expediency council. He never ceased to be a powerful figure in the Islamic Republic.
And while Khamenei controlled Iran’s of state media, Rafsanjani was also a major player in the press. “There was also no attempt to strip him of his money, Abrahamian says, “so he could use his wealth to support newspapers, first the newspapers of his party, and later more liberal papers.”
But for all his efforts to rebuild Iran’s political institutions after Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani had had set a precedent that dogged all his successors. “Rafsanjani unknowingly helped Khamenei to weaken the presidency,” Khalaji says. “Khamenei’s experience with Rafsanjani made him decisive in not letting any other president become so powerful. After Rafsanjani, he tried to target not only all presidents but every organization or political entity that might have some relationship with Rafsanjani.”
The rivalry, which in ensuing decades centered on Rafsanjani’s support for reformists close to Khatami and former members of the Islamic Left like Mir Hossein Mousavi, lasted until Rafsanjani’s death in January 2017. Although Rafsanjani had adopted the high religious title of ayatollah during his political career, Khamenei referred to him after his death by the lesser title, hojatoleslam.
Also in this series:
Banisadr: The Optimistic Islamist (1980-1981)
Rajai: The Clerics’ Loyalist (1981)
Khamenei: The Strategic Theocrat (1981-1989)
Khatami: The Reformist (1997-2005)
Ahmadinejad: The Populist (2005-2013)