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What can Rafsanjani do about his son's arrest?

March 17, 2015
Reza HaghighatNejad
6 min read
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son Mehdi
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son Mehdi

On Sunday, March 15, Iran's chief prosecutor announced that Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the son of Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, had been given three jail sentences amounting to 15 years on corruption charges.

The Tehran Revolutionary Court handed down sentences of seven, five and three years for three separate offences, the prosecutor Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei told state media, including one "security issue". Rafsanjani has 20 days to appeal.

The sentences are new, but the case has a long history, with some of the accusations going back five or 10 years, or even longer. It has met with controversy and a good deal of political wrangling: in one twist during Rafsanjani’s second term as president, Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence boss Hossein Taeb lost his job at the Ministry of Intelligence. But, more than anything, the case is about financial corruption.

In 2000, the Norwegian oil company Statoil launched plans to do business in Iran. Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani was accused of having received bribes to open doors for the company, linking its executives with key contacts in Iran’s petroleum industry. In one account, hardliner MP Ahmad Tavakoli claimed that Rafsanjani had received $5.2 million in bribes.

But it is not only the current parliament — which is dominated by conservatives — that has pursued the case. The former reformist-controlled parliament, which was elected in 2000, also investigated, though they produced fewer results.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — who, as chairman of the Expediency Council, has supervisory powers over all branches of government, at least in theory — claims he personally asked Ayatollah Khamenei to appoint a panel to investigate accusations against his son. Mohammad Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s brother, sat on the committee. Its influence was so great that reformists’ efforts were successfully rebuffed. But after 2000, Rafsanjani’s relationship with the reformists improved, giving politicians less of an incentive to pursue the matter. Eventually, the panel cleared the younger Rafsanjani — though the final decision to shelf the case came after the Supreme Leader intervened.


Cultures of Corruption

Between September 2009 and October 2012, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani was often out of the country, in London and Dubai. Hardliners labeled him the key master of the “Sedition” — shorthand for the Green Movement — and ordered the case to be reopened.

In January 2012, parliament’s Article 90 Commission, which is responsible for pursuing complaints against all three branches of government, issued a report that accused Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani of masterminding the reformist “War Room” during the disputed 2009 presidential election, and of being one of the Sedition’s key leaders.

But, upon his return to Iran, accusations that Rafsanjani was influential in the Green Movement were downplayed, and focus was once again on his financial criminal activity. The reason was clear. If Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani was found guilty of working for the Green Movement, it might have made him more popular, and in some ways harder to punish. His sister, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, was tried for propaganda against the regime during this period and sentenced to a mere six months’ imprisonment in January 2012.

In the eyes of the public, the name Rafsanjani and corruption are closely linked. It is the Achilles’ heel of the reformists, and, during the 2009 election debates, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used it against them. Now hardliners assume that people are more than ready to believe that Rafsanjani’s son is corrupt — and they have worked hard to push this image of him, saying that financial corruption in Iran really got underway during the reformist period, just as Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani was establishing himself. Since December 2010, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has repeatedly dismissed accusations against his son.

For his part, the younger Rafsanjani and his allies are keen to remind the public of high levels of corruption under Ahmadinejad, and among hardliners. They have found a perfect example in Mohammad Reza Rahimi, Ahmadinejad’s First Vice-President, who was recently convicted of corruption. But it was only a matter of time before the hardliners struck back. And though Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani and his lawyers have 20 days to appeal, how Rafsanjani and his circle launch their political counter-offensive is more important.


The Power of Silence

In the past, Rafsanjani Senior has said that if the judge reached a verdict, he would accept it and keep his silence. But he also said if the verdict was to be imposed from above — no matter from whom — he would protest against it. He has been wary of accepting that the judge arrived at the verdict by himself.

Hardliners expect Rafsanjani to behave like other loyal political figures, remaining silent for the good of the regime and Islam — even when their children are imprisoned or executed. Some have warned that Rafsanjani’s unwavering loyalty to his children and his outspokenness could be his downfall. They have appealed to him use good judgment when deciding to remain quiet or speak out. One hardliner, the MP Elias Naderi, has argued that Rafsanjani’s recent statements about creating a Leadership Council instead of a single Supreme Leader is a direct response to the case against his son.

Without a doubt, Rafsanjani has adopted a sharper tone in recent months. In addition to raising the possibility of a Leadership Council, he has also accused hardliners of adding their voices to that of the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking to the newspaper Aftab-e Yazd about his meeting with the Supreme Leader on nuclear negotiations, Rafsanjani said he had told Ayatollah Khamenei that now was not the time to be inflexible. In response, hardliner Mahmoud Nabavian said Rafsanjani had been disrespectful to Khamenei during the meeting.

Rafsanjani’s recent candidacy for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts was a public challenge to Khamenei and his inner influential circle. And, after the election, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of hardline cleric Mohammad Yazdi’s win as “proper and right”. But he has been less vocal on the sentencing of the younger Rafsanjani — most likely he has chosen to let Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judiciary, comment, a man with both the motivation and the power to speak out against Akbari Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son. But at some point Khamenei will have to engage with issue, as he did when Mehdi Rafsanjani was sentenced previously.

Rafsanjani is likely to continue being vocal and outspoken. And hardliners, who hope that Rafsanjani’s somewhat weaker position and his damaged relationship with Khamenei will work to their advantage, know that the outcome of the case depends chiefly on the dynamics between these two men. Whether Mehdi Rafsanjani is on his way to Evin Prison or not, it is clear that his path will go through the office of the Supreme Leader.

In his memoirs, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani writes about his love for his son Mehdi. And he writes about a different kind of affection, the “political love” he feels for the Supreme Leader. It is clear that the tension between Rafsanjani’s two loves has put the former president in a difficult situation, but he knows not to choose between them — however difficult the political and personal terrain.


Related articles:

The Surprise Defeat of Rafsanjani

Ahmadinejad’s Deputy Sentenced



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