Friday Surprise in Iran?

Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second most powerful man in Iran, is delivering the Friday Sermon in Tehran. Will it be the end of the protests, or a new challenge to the regime?

Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the second most powerful man in Iran (after the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) and one of the principal figures behind the anti-Ahmadinejad movement that has rocked the country over the last month, will deliver the Friday Sermon in Tehran this week, the first time he has been offered the prestigious pulpit in years.

Even more surprising, sources in Iran have confirmed that both the main reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi and former president Mohammad Khatami will also attend the sermon. In fact, Mousavi’s Web site is encouraging all of his supporters—that is, the hundreds of thousands of protesters who flooded the streets of Iran in the wake of the disputed presidential elections—to come along, too. Both Reuters and the Los Angeles Times report the rumors of Mousavi and Khatami attending.

What makes Rafsanjani’s invitation to deliver the Friday Sermon so unusual is that it could only have come from one man—Khamenei.

The presence in one place of the three main leaders of the protest movement (something that has not happened since the presidential elections) has fueled speculation about what exactly Rafsanjani plans to say. Could a compromise between the two camps be in the works? Or will this be the start of a new wave of challenges to the regime?

This will be Mousavi’s first public appearance in weeks; he has been under virtual house arrest since his refusal to accept the election results that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency. Why has the government suddenly allowed him to leave his home and attend the Friday Sermon? Could it be to force his capitulation to Ahmadinejad? Or is it the regime that’s capitulating?

The truth is no one knows what to expect from Rafsanjani on Friday. But the fact that the man known in Iran as “the Shark” has now become the reformist camp’s best hope for political change has left many in Iran scratching their heads. For years, no one was more emblematic of the hatred and anger that many Iranians, particularly the youth, feel toward the clerical establishment than Rafsanjani. Indeed, Rafsanjani is the clerical establishment. As one of the architects of the Islamic republic, he’s held almost every major post in the country. President from 1989-1997, he is now chairman of both the Expediency Council—meant to be a neutral body that arbitrates disputes between the parliament and the forces of the supreme leader—and the Assembly of Experts, which has the power to choose and to dismiss the supreme leader.

Rafsanjani is also staggeringly rich. A few years ago, when Forbes magazine published a special report on “Millionaire Mullahs,” it was Rafsanjani who made the cover. Since the revolution in 1979, Rafsanjani has managed to rise from his humble origins to build an empire worth more than $1 billion—this in a country in which the average adult income is less that $2,000 a month.

It is difficult to describe the fear and contempt with which a great many Iranians hold Rafsanjani. As the brainchild of the Iran-Contra scandal, Rafsanjani’s name is whispered at the head of every conspiracy. It is said he had a hand in the murder of Ayatollah Khomeini’s beloved son, Ahmad, so as to ensure his own promotion to the highest ranks of the revolutionary government. He has even been linked to a series of gruesome murders of dissident writers in 1998.

Of course, no one dares speak such things in public. When the intrepid Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji published an investigative piece about Rafsanjani’s role in the dissident murders, his newspaper was promptly shut down and its editors—Ganji included—were arrested. (Interestingly, Ganji never identified Rafsanjani by name, though everyone knew about whom he was writing—including, apparently, Rafsanjani.)

Although Rafsanjani has been associated with both the Combatant Clergy Association, a centrist clerical organization that has been outspoken in its condemnation of the elections, and the Kargozaran party, which last week called the Ahmadinejad government “illegitimate,” most Iranians balk at labeling Rafsanjani a “reformist.” In fact, Rafsanjani has flipped back and forth between reformist and conservative camps whenever it has suited him.

Still, Rafsanjani’s deep and unbridled loathing of Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad’s ceaseless attacks on his character and his family’s questionable business ties, has made the two men bitter enemies. (In the election aftermath, five members of Rafsanjani's family, including his outspoken daughter, Faezeh, were arrested and detained by the government.) By all accounts, Rafsanjani has been the main force behind the scenes trying to annul the elections. What’s more, he has spent the last few weeks in Qom, Iran’s religious capital, ostensibly trying to convince his fellow clerics on the Assembly of Experts to dismiss Khamenei and replace him either with another ayatollah or with a committee of three or five ayatollahs (as Iran’s constitution allows). That is what makes his invitation to deliver the Friday Sermon so unusual. After all, the invitation could only have come from one man—Khamenei.

In the end, the only thing that Rafsanjani truly cares about is Rafsanjani, which is why no one knows if he will use the Friday Sermon to call for an end to the protests or to renew his criticism of Ahmadinejad. It may all depend on what’s best for Rafsanjani.

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Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that whither Rafsanjani goes, so goes the future of Iran.

Stay tuned.

Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and How to Win a Cosmic War.