The decision by former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani not to contest elections for the head of the Assembly of Experts indicates that efforts to purge him from the establishment are now almost complete.
The official exit of Rafsanjani from the country's political establishment is the most visible sign of the profound political changes that have taken place over the past 21 months. AsiaTimes Online has consistently argued since June 2009 - in the immediate aftermath of Iran's controversial Presidential Elections - that Rafsanjani will end up as one of the biggest losers of Iran's political transformation.
Besides confirming the total collapse of the centrist line in theIslamic Republic, Rafsanjani'spolitical demise is yet another clear shift towards authoritarianism and superficially at least consolidates the position of hardline right-wing factions.
However, beyond the immediate challenge of reconstructing the official establishment, the Islamic Republic is still faced with the difficult task of addressing long-term concerns about legitimacy and democratic accountability. The new regional dynamic of reform and democratization are likely to add greater impetus to this process.
End of a career
The end when it came was more gentle than expected. Instead of a public humiliation or even worse, the clerical grandees of the Islamic Republic - doubtless with tacit backing from the leader of the revolution, Grand Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei - decided to grant Rafsanjani the relative luxury of an elegant exit. Their task was made easier by Rafsanjani'sgrowing acceptance of his ultimate fate - removal from the establishment.
Nicknamed the shark and Akbar Shah (in recognition of his power in the 1980s), Rafsanjani had been a stalwart of the establishment since the victory of the Iranian Revolution in February, 1979. As speaker of parliament in the 1980s and president in the 1990s he was amongst the core group of Shi'ite clerics who dominated the commanding heights of Iranian politics.
Already in decline by the turn of the century, the sun finally set on his empire when a new generation of Iranian politicians, led by current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, stormed the political scene in 2005. Rafsanjani, determined to fight his corner, poured money into the political campaign of Ahmadinejad's main rival in the June 2009 presidential elections. The outcome of those disputed elections was catastrophic for Rafsanjani and his allies but the old oligarch could have prevented a total collapse had he not made two fatal errors.
First and foremost, Rafsanjani - despite his reputation as Iran's most astute politician - failed to foresee the collapse of factional politics in the Islamic Republic. His immediate post-election strategy centered on presenting himself as an arbiter in a factional dispute. In previous crisis interventions of this kind had benefited Rafsanjani handsomely and earned him grudging respect of all key players in the Islamic Republic's complex political community. But this time around there was no underpinning political infrastructure to support his strategy. The battle lines were not drawn in an inter-factional landscape; this time they were much sharper and effectively pitted Islamic Republic loyalists against an assortment of political interests including indefatigable enemies of the Islamic Revolution.
Second, Rafsanjani decided not to take sides in the battle of wills between the official establishment and a new opposition movement led by former prime minister Mir HosseinMousavi and former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karroubi. In view of Mousavi andKarroubi's increasingly radical and subversive position, Rafsanjani's neutral stance was widely interpreted by Islamic Republic loyalists as an act of treason and calls grew for his immediate purge.
In what will probably prove to be his final major act of opportunism, Rafsanjani's decision to sit on the fence had less to do with belief in the values and goals of the so-called Green movement than a hard-headed calculation that Mousavi and Karroubi may yet end up on top. For its part the dominant strand in the Green movement (which continues to profess loyalty to the Islamic Republic) is deeply skeptical of Rafsanjani, however, as part of a broader strategy of fostering divisions in the establishment many in the movement were willing to use the ''shark'' to sow dissent and chaos.
In the end, the old oligarch made the wrong choice. Instead of switching sides to an eclectic political and ideological camp, the bulk of the country's political actors, alongside the bureaucracy and the security establishment, in addition to the wider networks and layers of Islamic Republic loyalists, decided to stick with the official establishment. Once the balance of confidence had shifted the Green movement withered away.
On paper at least Rafsanjani continues to hold one last remaining title, namely the head of the Expediency Discernment Council (EDC), whose core function is to resolve disputes between the three branches of government. However, the EDC has come under concerted attack by Ahmadinejad and his supporters who argue that the council complicates official procedures and instead of resolving disputes ends up intensifying them. While it is very difficult to gauge the extent of Rafsanjani's influence over EDC procedures and direction, it is expected that he will be forced to relinquish his position when the council's membership is renewed next year.
In any case Rafsanjani's purge has proven to be a lot softer than the other two major purges in the Islamic Republic; the impeachment of first president Abol Hassan Banisadr in June 1981 and the public humiliation of former leader-designate Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in early 1989. By granting him the dubious privilege of an elegant exit, the establishment doubtless expects the old oligarch to refrain from making mischief.
New political order
While Rafsanjani had long ceased to be a major force in Iranian politics, there will be many who will rejoice at his political demise. At the same time there is a substantial body of opinion that will be worried by the removal of a man who in the last stage of his long political career transformed into a thorn on the side of the establishment. The fear is thatRafsanjani's official removal emboldens the political forces who are spearheading the Islamic Republic's speedy shift toward an authoritarian political model.
These fears are not entirely exaggerated. Over the past 21 months, the state has flexed its muscles at the expense of the country's political community and civil society. Moreover, the once fiercely independent judiciary has retreated in the face of aggressive posturing by the country's security establishment. The key question at this stage is whether the traditional conservatives and the right-wingers have the capacity and cohesion to manage this shift towards authoritarianism in the long term.
These concerns have been brought into sharp relief by the new dynamic of dissent and revolt across the Middle East and North Africa. While Iranian leaders and officials are at pains to conceptually and inspirationally link these revolutionary movements to Iran's momentous Islamic Revolution of 1979, they are less eager to address the awkward questions that these events have thrown up about Iran's own democratic deficit.
From a strategic perspective, while Iran is set to become one of the biggest winners from the unraveling of the Arab political order, the Islamic Republic can maximize its strategic gains by restoring its once lively political scene.
Mahan Abedin is an analyst of Middle East politics.