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Former Iranian President Bani-Sadr: Rafsanjani’s Death Is A Blow To Normalization Of U.S.-Iran Relations

Without the moderate leader, he says, the regime will maintain a “confrontation and secret compromise” trend, perhaps more easily with President Trump.
Former Iranian President Rafsanjani passed away on Sunday. 
Former Iranian President Rafsanjani passed away on Sunday. 

Abolhassan Bani-Sadr was the first president of the Islamic Republic of Iran after the 1979 revolution. In the following interview with The WorldPost, just days after the death of Iran’s fourth president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Bani-Sadr reflects on the leader’s passing and what it means for the future of his country and its relations with America. Rafsanjani, known for his moderate views, long career among the ruling elite and oversight of developments in Iran’s nuclear program, died Sunday at the age of 82 after suffering from a heart attack.

How would you describe the effect of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on the Iranian revolution and its outcome?

As the Iranian revolution was a spontaneous movement, [Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani did not play any role in its emergence. During the revolution, however, he became [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s main assistant. After the overthrow of the monarchy, Rafsanjani had the most influence over Khomeini and played a leading role in reconstructing dictatorship in Iran after the revolution. This process lasted throughout the periods of leadership of both Khomeini and [Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei, [the current supreme leader], and in both periods, Rafsanjani was the second-in-command. 

'His death reverses the situation and the belief that the “non-reformability” of the regime will prevail.'

How does Rafsanjani’s death affect the reformists’ camp?

Since [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Rafsanjani played the role of “counterbalance” in favor of reformism, arguing that the regime can be reformed. His death reverses the situation and the belief that the “non-reformability”of the regime will prevail. If people begin to believe that the regime cannot be reformed, Khamenei will be the main loser. The reformists will be losers, too. In fact, they will lose on two grounds. First, they will become weaker vis-à-vis the independent and democratic alternative, which is situated outside the regime and independent of any foreign power. Secondly, an increasing number of reformists, especially in rank and file, will join this alternative.

Iranians hold posters of late former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during his funeral ceremony in the capital Te
Iranians hold posters of late former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during his funeral ceremony in the capital Tehran, on Jan. 10, 2017.

Is his death beneficial for hard-liners, and does it help Khamenei to appoint his desired successor?

In dictatorial regimes, the removal of counterbalance always weakens the regime. For example, we saw that in the former USSR. The removal of [Mikhail] Gorbachev led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Iran, when the shah turned the country into a one-party system and made party membership for Iranians compulsory, it made people believe that the regime could not be reformed and had to be overthrown.

According to WikiLeaks, Rafsanjani believed that Khamenei was about to die and he tried to establish a firm place for himself after his death. However, it is the Council of Experts which will choose the future supreme leader, and it is totally obedient to Khamenei. Even if Rafsanjani was alive, he couldn’t affect the outcome. However, his death can have two contradictory effects on Khamenei’s decision about the next leader:

a) Khamenei will either choose a leader irrespective of the degree of public support for his choice, and this will convince people that the regime cannot be reformed, or

b) fearing the collapse of the regime if he chooses such a person, Khamenei will choose a successor who does not have a strong background of crime and corruption.

'Khamenei’s supporters believe not only that Trump will maintain the Vienna nuclear agreement, but also that his policies in Syria and the Middle East will maintain the interests of the regime.'

How will his absence affect Iran-U.S. relations during Trump’s presidency?

The relation of Iran with the U.S. is subordinate to the need of the regime to have the U.S. as an enemy. This determines Iran’s domestic and international politics. Now that Rafsanjani is gone, within the regime there will be nobody who can talk about the normalization of relations with the United States. The regime will continue its usual policy of outward confrontation, secret compromise and give-and-take with the United States. Furthermore, Khamenei’s supporters believe not only that Trump will maintain the Vienna nuclear agreement, but also that his policies in Syria and the Middle East will maintain the interests of the regime. This is due to the fact that he will work with Russia in Syria, and in this way, will be working with Iran. Finally, Khamenei’s supporters believe that, in comparison with former U.S. presidents, it will be easier to use strategies of outward confrontation and secret compromise with Trump.

This interview has been translated and edited briefly for clarity.

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