By Mazyar Mokfi, Charles Recknagel, RFE/RL
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is one of the most powerful men in Iran. As such, he is usually highly visible in his official functions, which include periodically leading Friday prayers at Tehran's mosque -- an event broadcast nationally on state TV. But amid the street protests since Iran's disputed presidential election in June, Rafsanjani has all but vanished from the television screen.
His last appearance on television was during
February's observance of the 31st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, when he
and other leaders urged people to take part in regime-sponsored rallies.
Prior to that, he had not been seen since July 17, when he famously acknowledged opposition "doubts" over the election results. That was as he led Friday prayers at the Tehran University mosque. The TV station edited out the crowd's chants of support and, since then, Rafsanjani -- who used to lead prayers once a month -- has been replaced on each occasion by a lower-level cleric.
Lives Made Difficult
Has Rafsanjani been banned from state television, or has he willingly foregone public appearances? No one can answer that question definitively today. But his absence, combined with other recent events, can't help but give the impression he is under siege.
That sense of siege, as well as repeated, brief arrests of Rafsanjani family members, is the latest sign of how deeply Iran's establishment has split over the Green Movement, even as protesters have been driven from the streets.
This month, security services arrested Rafsanjani's grandson, Hassan Lahooti, then released him again. A Revolutionary Court later accused Lahooti, whose phone was tapped, of criticizing the supreme leader.
Similarly, security services this month arrested and released Rafsanjani's brother-in-law, Hussein Marashi, on charges of corruption.
He is widely believed to have provided funds to the presidential campaign of the Green Movement's key leader, Mir Hossein Musavi, partly to avenge his own loss to Ahmadinejad in the presidential race of 2005.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi
Rafsanjani is also widely believed to feel personally threatened by Ahmadinejad, who ran on a populist platform in both presidential elections. Ahmadinejad regularly suggests that Rafsanjani and some other wealthy fixtures of the establishment are part of the country's corruption problem.
But many Iranian analysts believe that Rafsanjani may have a more important reason for protecting the leaders of the Green Movement who are also establishment figures, such as Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi. That is that Rafsanjani appears to believe that without these establishment figureheads, the Green Movement could evolve into a direct threat to Islamic revolution.
"This is really the important point," Shahsavandi says. "I mentioned the role of shield that Mr. Rafsanjani plays for the Green Movement, but he plays the same role for the current political structure in Iran."
Other analysts also see Rafsanjani trying to balance two opposing forces.
Sir Richard Dalton, who was Britain's ambassador to Iran from 2003 to 2006 and is now a fellow at London-based Chatham House, says Rafsanjani "recognizes that the Islamic republic's day-to-day business must be carried on, that -- rightly or wrongly -- the government that has been in place since the [presidential] election in June is in charge of the levers of the country and that it falls to their responsibility, and that if matters are to be taken forward in a desirable direction then people need to work together."
"So [Rafsanjani] is willing to call for national unity," Dalton says, "but at the same time he is calling for greater respect for those who don't agree with everything the government does."
In this balancing act, Rafsanjani's chief levers are the great status he enjoys as head of two of the Islamic regime's most powerful bodies. One is the Expediency Council, which mediates in disputes between the executive and legislative branches. The other is the Assembly of Experts, which elects the supreme leader.
Rafsanjani with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei - February 2010
But the extent to which Rafsanjani can be
successful finally depends upon the Islamic republic's ultimate power broker,
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
So far, Khamenei has also played a balancing game of his own. Sometimes he supports Ahmadinejad as the hard-line enforcer of the regime against street protests. At other times, he appears to warn Ahmadinejad not to overstep his presidential powers.
Rafsanjani's apparent exile from the state television screen may be a case in point.
Speaking about the state television, which is controlled by close Ahmadinejad ally Ezatollah Zarghami, Khamenei recently suggested he does not approve of all it does.
"Do not think that because I appoint the head of state TV it means that I check every single one of its programs," the supreme leader said. "No, it is not like that. I do not agree with many of state TV's programs."
Whether Khamenei's cryptic statement is a criticism of state television's treatment of Rafsanjani, its handling of news about the Green Movement, or something else entirely is impossible for anyone outside of the regime's own inner circle to know.
But it clearly is part of the delicate game of trying to keep the establishment unified as the Islamic republic faces the greatest political turmoil in its 30-year history. And that game, as the increasing tensions between Ahmadinejad and Rafsanjani shows, is only getting harder.
Radio Farda correspondents Alireza Kermani in Prague and Sharan Tabari in London contributed to this report
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