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Special Features

Khamenei and Rafsanjani: A Friendship That Turned Sour

April 1, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi
10 min read
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani played a key role in Ayatollah Khamenei’s selection as Supreme Leader, believing that he, too, would stay in power by doing so
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani played a key role in Ayatollah Khamenei’s selection as Supreme Leader, believing that he, too, would stay in power by doing so
The pair, once so close that they shared a house in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, gradually and publicly fell out toward the end of Rafsanjani's presidency
The pair, once so close that they shared a house in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, gradually and publicly fell out toward the end of Rafsanjani's presidency
Khamenei built his own inner circle from Iranian clerics already active in the security and intelligence services
Khamenei built his own inner circle from Iranian clerics already active in the security and intelligence services
After Rafsanjani's death in 2017, Khamenei omitted a key Arabic sentence from the prayers recited over his body and instead said "O God, forgive him" three times
After Rafsanjani's death in 2017, Khamenei omitted a key Arabic sentence from the prayers recited over his body and instead said "O God, forgive him" three times

The rental home thatAkbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei shared before the Islamic Revolution was located in an old neighborhood in south Tehran, on Nayeb es-Saltaneh (Goethe) Avenue’s Razzagh-Nia Alley, near a Peugeot repair shop. Rafsanjani’s share of the rent was 220 tomans and Khamenei contributed 200, or around $31 and $29 respectively. These were the only two officials of the future Islamic Republic that had enjoyed such a close relationship beforehand: a relationship that would later turn sour.

According to Rafsanjani, the two had first met at class taught by Ayatollah Mohaghegh Damad, a prominent teacher in Qom Seminary. But they became friends during a pilgrimage to Karbala, the holy city in Iraq where Imam Hossein, the third Shia Imam, is buried.

Some say that this journey took place in 1957, and some say it was 1958. Either way, Khamenei was later quoted by Ayatollah Jafar Shabiri Zanjani, who was present at the shrine that day, as having said: “I like nobody when I first meet them.” But according to him, although Khamenei did not take to Rafsanjani at first sight, their friendship later took off.

In 1959 Khamenei then moved to Qom, and the two became closer. But they were in no way equal in status. Rafsanjani was known as a member of Ayatollah Khamenei’s inner circle, while Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri and Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleghani, the other two prominent figures of the 1979 revolution, were independently eminent. Early on after the revolution Rafsanjani’s name would crop up on many occasions, such as when Mehdi Bazargan was appointed as the interim prime minister. Khamenei’s, by contrast, was rarely heard.

In 1980, Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected as the speaker of the first parliament of the Islamic Republic, where Khamenei was merely one representative among others. At the same time, Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, who was then known as the second-in-command in the political hierarchy of post-revolutionary Iran, was appointed Chief Justice, while Morteza Motahari retained his status as one of the principal ideologues of Islamic Republic.

Supporting Actors Inherit Leading Roles

A series of crises then engulfed the newly-established Islamic Republic: the US embassy hostage crisis, the Iran-Iraq war, the resignation of Mehdi Bazargan under pressure from hardliners, the impeachment of first president Abolhassan Banisadr, and the assassinations of Mohamad Beheshti, Morteza Motahari, Banisadr’s successor Mohammad-Ali Rajaei, and Prime Minister Mohammad-Javad Bahonar.

These disasters opened the door for some of the Islamic Republic’s supporting actors to step up and play leading roles. Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili was promoted to Chief Justice, Khamenei was elected president, and then Mir Hossein Moussavi became prime minister. These three, along with Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Khomeini’s son Ahmad, met as the heads of the branches of the government in which most of the most important decisions were still made at that time. During this period, Rafsanjani was still the closest person to Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rafsanjani supported Khamenei during his presidency, but was constantly forced to play mediator in the never-ending disputes between Khamenei and Mir Hossein Mousavi. In time, he also took on a key role in Khamenei’s selection as successor of Ayatollah Khomeini as Supreme Leader. He directed the Assembly of Experts’ meetings in such a way Khamenei’s appointment was practically ensured, and meanwhile prepared himself to assume the presidency. He was under the impression that, with Khamenei as the Leader, he would retain his considerable power and add to it the power of the executive branch as well.

After Khamenei became Supreme Leader, however, things did not go as expected.

Building an Inner Circle of His Own

While Khomeini was still around, Khamenei had not had a team of his own. He therefore built his inner circle from clerics already active in security and intelligence, recruiting such figures as Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani as his chief of staff, and Ali Asghar Mir Hejazi as Golpayegani’s deputy for political and security affairs. Both are still in post today.

For the first six years of Rafsanjani’s presidency, the friendly personal relations between him and Khamenei continued broadly as before. They met every week, alternating in hosting each other. Nevertheless, Rafsanjani’s power was gradually eroded.

Khamenei opposed some of Rafsanjani’s most important policy proposals, including a merger between the Revolutionary Guards and the regular army, and improving relations with the United States. The Supreme Leader’s interference in the executive branch grew steadily, while the reformist Interior Minister Abdollah Nouri was impeached and removed from office. Mohammad Khatami, Rafsanjani’s then-Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, was forced to resign over his differences with Khamenei on cultural policies and freedom of the press. Then toward the end of Rafsanjani’s presidency, the group known as Ansar-e Hezbollah (“Supporters of the Party of God”) was founded: a loosely-tied group of vigilantes who organized marches against the government’s “un-Islamic” policies and went on to attack individuals, newspapers and any entity or person they considered “deviant”.

Besides Khamenei’s own interventions, intelligence agencies close to the Supreme Leader launched a campaign to implicate Rafsanjani’s children in a corruption case. This led to the arrest of Abbas Yazdanpanah Yazdi, a British-Iranian businessman and confidante of Rafsanjani’s son Mehdi, who for his part was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2015 for “security offences and financial crimes.” Hossein Taeb, the current head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, had Yazdanpanah arrested in his capacity as then-deputy intelligence minister and recorded some of his confessions, which were only published years later after Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani’s arrest. This in turn led to the dismissal of Taeb from the Intelligence Ministry.

Some believe that Taeb was responsible for the kidnapping and subsequent disappearance of Yazdanpanah in Dubai in 2013, after which he was never seen again. The Dubai authorities arrested a number of Iranians in connection with the kidnapping but the case remains unsolved, while British police told Yazdanpanah’s wife he is presumed dead.

A Shocked Khamenei Rebounds

With the victory of reformist Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential election, Rafsanjani once again gained influence in the executive branch. Khamenei was stunned by Khatami’s victory, which he had not expected and had done his best to prevent.

But after a while, the shock wore off, and the Supreme Leader began to take fresh action aimed at undermining and curtailing Khatami’s administration. In July 1998 Gholamhossein Karbaschi, Tehran’s then-mayor, who had been responsible for lifting the nation’s capital out of its post-revolutionary doldrums, was sentenced to prison for graft. It came despite his appeals to Khamenei to prevent the judiciary from doing so. When Hashemi Rafsanjani explicitly denounced the sentence in his Friday sermon, members of Hezbollah chanted against him.

In 2000, in the first parliamentary elections after the end of his presidency, Rafsanjani ran again for a seat in parliament. He was opposed by both the reformists and by a group of hardline supporters of Khamenei. He came dead last in the competition to represent Tehran, but after a while his relations with reformists improved again while he and Khamenei grew further apart.

The 2005 presidential election then served as a stage for public confrontation between Khamenei and Rafsanjani, who was once again a candidate. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the then-hardline mayor of Tehran and a loyal supporter of Khamenei, beat Rafsanjani by about 62 to 36 percent. Rafsanjani complained of voter fraud and penned an open letter to people he called election “saboteurs”, saying he left them to the “mercy of God”. In other words, he was no longer taking his grievances directly to the Supreme Leader who, by implication, was responsible.

During the 2009 presidential race, the ongoing feud went public again when Rafsanjani wrote an unprecedented open letter to Khamenei, calling on him to extinguish the "fire" sparked by President Ahmadinejad's accusations against his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and to prevent that fire from spreading “through the election and beyond". In a televised debate, Ahmadinejad had claimed Mousavi was backed by a number of “corrupt” officials, including Rafsanjani and his sons.

About 10 days later, in his Friday Prayers sermon on June 19, 2008, Khamenei did not mince words: he broadly agreed with Ahmadinejad’s claims. In turn, in a sermon on July 17, Rafsanjani responded by throwing his weight behind protesters who disputed the election results. “All of us in the establishment, the security forces, police, parliament and even the protestors, should operate within the framework of the law,” he said. “We should open the doors to debate. We should not keep so many people in prison. We should release them to take care of their families... It is impossible to restore public confidence overnight, but we have to let everyone speak out. We should have logical and brotherly discussions, and our people will make their judgments. We should let our media write, within the framework of the law, and we should not impose restrictions on them. We should even let our media criticize us. Our security forces, our police and other organs have to guarantee a climate [that allows] for criticism.”

The verbal clashes continued when Mohsen Kadivar, a professor of Islamic studies, wrote a letter to Rafsanjani and other members of the Assembly of Experts stating that, theoretically at least, they had the constitutional power to appoint, supervise and dismiss the Supreme Leader. He further proposed the impeachment of Khamenei. Rafsanjani did not respond.

Kadivar later reported that in a meeting of the executive committee of the Assembly of Experts on August 11, 2009, a number of other members had asked Rafsanjani, who was still the chairman at that time, to respond to the letter and back Khamenei. But he had apparently answered: “Don’t waste your time on insisting. I agree with many points raised in the letter.”

On 8 March 2011, Rafsanjani did not run for the chairmanship of the Assembly of Experts and was replaced by Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Mahdavi Kani. Rafsanjani stated that he had withdrawn from the election for chairman to "avoid division."

Closing the Doors to Reconciliation

Further events, including prison sentences issued against Rafsanjani’s daughter Faezeh Hashemi and his son Mehdi Hashemi, closed all door to reconciliation between him and Khamenei. In the 2013 presidential election he declared his candidacy once again despite Khamenei’s opposition, and was subsequently disqualified by the Guardian Council. Following this, he declared: "I don't think this country could be run any worse."

Nevertheless, in 2016, in a public victory that proved to be a parting shot, both Hassan Rouhani and Rafsanjani easily won seats in the Assembly of Experts. Reformist-backed candidates ended up claiming 52 of the assembly's 88 seats.

Rafsanjani died on 8 January 2017 after suffering a heart attack in a pool. After his death Khamenei did not bother keeping up appearances, even during his burial ceremonies. While reciting the prayer for the dead over his body, he notably omitted one Arabic sentence: “O Lord, we know not of him except good deeds and you are the one who is all-knowing”. Instead, he repeated “O Lord, forgive him” three times.

Even after Rafsanjani’s death, Khamenei did his best to drive his family out of Iranian public life. Rafsanjani’s daughters Faezeh and Fatemeh were expelled from Islamic Azad University. Khamenei also refused to issue a pardon for Mehdi Hashemi even after Rafsanjani’s death, whereas he had done this for Abdollah Nouri, the imprisoned brother of Alireza Nouri: a reformist member of parliament and supporter of President Khatami.

When Rafsanjani’s other sons went to visit Khamenei during their father’s mourning period, they did not take their sisters with them, perhaps thinking that if they did, the daughters would criticize Khamenei for his behavior in person. But the meeting did not turn out to be a friendly one regardless. According to Mohsen Hashemi Rafsanjani, he had told Khamenei: “after the death of our father, you will be our father.”

Instead of offering words of consolation, Khamenei answered: “Hashemi’s children did not listen, even to their father.”

Related Coverage:

The Overnight Ayatollah: Khamenei's Fight to Become a Spiritual Leader

Why is Khamenei Still Trying to Prove his Legitimacy as Leader?

Khamenei Begrudges His Critics Even After Their Death

Khamenei’s War on Democracy and Civil Society


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