Iran’s social media was buzzing in January when, Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of Iran’s former President Rafsanjani gave a controversial interview, striking a chord with many Iranians. Questioning the merits of Tehran’s regional policy of «resistance» pursued by the late General Soleimani, Hashemi went on to assert that it will take sustained pressure to change the Islamic Republic’s policies. By Ali Fathollah-Nejad
Back in early January, remarks made by Faezeh Hashemi, former MP (1996–2000) and daughter of the late President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in a wide-ranging video interview created an uproar in Iran.
Tellingly, once off air, she admitted to the interviewer that her statements may indeed have been too «peppery». Conducted on 8 January – the fourth anniversary of her father’s death – the two most widely disseminated excerpts touched upon two major taboos in official Iran, echoing sentiments shared by a considerable portion of the population: one on U.S. Iran policy and the question of change in the Islamic Republic, the other on the merits of Iran’s regional policies spearheaded by the late Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani.
Conducted the day after the right-wing siege of the Capitol fomented by U.S. President Trump on 6 January and just a few days after the one-year anniversary of the U.S. drone killing of Soleimani, the timing of the controversial interview added fuel to the fallout in the days that followed.
U.S. policy on Iran: Trump’s «maximum pressure» vs. the «lax Democrats»
Faezeh Hashemi’s remarks made at the very end of the hour-long interview were what received the most attention, where she argued that only a continuation of the Trump presidency could have led to positive change in Iran: «[…] for Iran, I would have liked to see Mr. Trump being [re-]elected. Were I were an American, however, I would not have voted for Mr. Trump.»
Asked by the interviewer what she meant by that, Hashemi explained her thesis, arguing that only a continuation of Trump’s policy of maximum pressure could have led to policy changes in Tehran. She went on to add that, after all, whenever Iranians attempt to push a reform agenda, «nothing happens» and instead they face a crackdown – likely a reference to the two nationwide uprisings of January 2018 and November 2019.
«Maybe if the pressure exerted by Mr. Trump had continued, we would have been forced to change some of our policies. And these policy changes would definitely have been to people’s benefit.» She then turned to the U.S. Democrats, whose President-elect Joe Biden was due to assume power in the White House the following week on 20 January.
She described the party as «a bit loosey-goosey» (shol-o-vel), drawing the conclusion that «our erroneous stand will be further strengthened.» Hashemi closed by saying that regardless of a reduction of U.S. pressures and easing of sanctions – which might be on the cards under the new Biden administration – Iranian policies, domestic and across the region, are likely to continue unabated.
Legacy of Rouhani and Zarif «indefensible»
She also explained that despite the undeniable impact of sanctions, neither they alone nor the intervention by the principalists (Osoulgarayan) – i.e. the Rouhani administration’s domestic hardline rivals – could be blamed for the country’s economic woes. In other words, the President himself must bear some of the responsibility. During the interview, she clearly distanced herself from the Rouhani administration, which was indeed remarkable, given that the current president is considered to have been a mentee of her late father.
Moreover, she maintained, the record of the current administration’s second term (which began in August 2017), including that of President Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad-Javad Zarif, is simply «indefensible». Not only have they begun to adopt positions «more hardline than the hardliners themselves», but neither Rouhani’s economic policies nor Zarif’s control over his foreign-policy portfolio have proved sufficient to offset the adverse action and policies pursued by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps across the region.
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Hashemi was basically suggesting that the Rouhani administration had deviated from the school of thought associated with her father, adopting many of the policies of the Ahmadinejad administration instead.
Soleimani’s regional policies of «resistance» counterproductive
In the other widely circulated segment of the interview, Faezeh Hashemi questioned the merit of Iran’s regional policy of «resistance».
Here, amid the week-long official commemoration of «martyr Haj Qassem», she provocatively asserted that she «hadn’t heard a single person asking what Mr. Soleimani actually did.» She thus broke another key taboo, namely the regime-promoted propaganda depicting the late IRGC commander as a genius – a national hero defending and promoting Iranian national interests and security throughout a dangerously chaotic region, pregnant with anti-Iranian, anti-Shia terrorism.
Instead, she maintained that ever since «Syria and the Arab Spring» in particular, Soleimani’s actions and those of the wider «resistance» had failed to advance Iran’s development in various key areas, such the economy, politics, freedom, and foreign policy.
Hashemi claimed, for instance, that before Soleimani decided «to go to Syria», he sought the advice of her late father and «Dad said: ‘Don’t go’.» In fact, Hashemi Rafsanjani was reportedly the first high-ranking official of the Islamic Republic who (in August 2013, days after the Ghouta chemical attack near Damascus) openly voiced criticism over the extent of Iran’s intervention in Syria on behalf of Bashar Assad.
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Others within the «Rafsanjani camp», such as prominent former Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi attending a campaign rally for the re-election of President Rouhani in April 2017, publicly criticised Iran’s policy in Syria and elsewhere in the region, saying it was overly reliant on arms rather than diplomacy.
As such, Karbaschi claimed that it was ultimately detrimental to Iran’s national interests and its image, only to be later rebuked by Rouhani administration officials
An expose of the Rafsanjani-inspired school of thought
Faezeh Hashemi’s questioning of Soleimani’s legacy reflects a larger argument, namely a key tenet of the school of thought closely associated with the figure of her late father: that the conduct of foreign policy must first and foremost serve the grand strategic goal of advancing Iranian development (mainly defined in economic terms), with the aim of elevating the country to a more advanced developmental stage.
This doctrine of a «developmentalist foreign policy» was initially nurtured by the Rouhani presidency and was translated into the administration’s pursuit of «constructive engagement» with the West. The success of this strategy, however, has been compromised by the regional policies advocated by the IRGC and Supreme Leader Khamenei.
Many of Hashemi’s remarks reflect the school of thought associated with the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, at odds with the more offensive, confrontational, revolutionary, and ideological schools of thought mostly, but not exclusively, advocated by Iran’s hardliners.
Last but not least, when evoking the role of U.S. sanctions in particular and that of external powers in general for explaining Iran’s domestic problems, Hashemi mentioned the protests that swept the nation during the Rouhani era, asking if anyone had heard the protesters chanting «death to America» – arguably the core chant of the Islamic Republic.
And yet, this chant was not only absent during the anti-regime upheavals, it was replaced by the powerful slogan “Our enemy is right at home, they always say it’s America” (Doshman-e ma haminjast, hamash migan Amrikast). Hashemi’s conclusion: the Iranian people are aware that the key problem «lies elsewhere» – hinting at the current Iranian leadership, headed by Khamenei and the IRGC.
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Accused of «mourning Trump on the anniversary of her father’s death»
Against this background, reactions to her interview were quite predictable. Unsurprisingly, she found herself under fire from the Islamic Republic’s hardliners and fundamentalists; after all, much of her criticism was a thinly veiled questioning of their performance.
The editor-in-chief of Iran’s hardline daily Kayhan, Hossein Shariatmadari, wrote that precisely at a time when America finds herself in a severe crisis of identity, with even the most renowned U.S. political figures admitting that the States are at a particularly low ebb, a number of Western-oriented forces appeared to have tied their fortunes to the Trump White House and were applauding its policies.
Moreover, the front page of the ultra-conservative daily Vatan-e Emrooz flatly accused her of «mourning Trump on the anniversary of her father’s death». The front page’s main headline, «Security or freedom?» was a poignant reminder of the thinking of this political camp, which regards freedom as anathema to security.
Ever since Faezeh Hashemi began engaging in promoting women’s rights, this sharp-tongued and outspoken prominent daughter has been a thorn in the side of Iranian hardliners. She founded the first-ever women’s paper in Iran – the weekly Zan (lit. «Woman») in July 1998. The publication survived less than a year and was banned in April 1999, as a result of powerful hardline opposition.
In January 2012, she was sentenced to six months in prison for «propaganda against the ruling system». In May 2016, a political storm followed after she met the leader of the outlawed Baha’i faith. And more recently, a year ago, in the wake of the November 2019 protests that were put down with unprecedented brute force by regime forces, she reportedly called upon the Supreme Leader to resign to open the way for structural reforms to take place.
On the other hand, Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Tehran University politics professor, who has repeatedly voiced similar criticism and is considered to be part of the «Rafsanjani camp», rushed to Hashemi’s defence against a flurry of attacks against her. On social media, he wrote that she «has honestly reflected the sentiments of millions of her compatriots». The editor-in-chief of Etemad Online tweeted that her statements, «whether right or wrong», were an «inalienable right», and her opponents should be free to respond to the content, rather than engage in «character assassination».
Meanwhile, her brother Mohsen Hashemi, in an open letter, asked her to apologise for her statements, as they would pave the way for further attacks on their late father. He added that her remarks had also offended the Rafsanjani family and its supporters. This move was widely seen as stemming from the presidential ambitions harboured by the current Chairman of the City Council of Tehran for the upcoming elections in June. Responding to his appeal in an interview with Khabar Online, she said her brother was the most conservative member of the family and sought to control them all.
…or merely the semblance of common sympathy?
Despite the accuracy of much of her criticism and the factional rivalry within the Islamic Republic’s elite, the interview conducted by Ensaf News, a reformist media outlet believed to have ties with Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, should be taken with a grain of salt.
Firstly, intentionally or otherwise, the interview creates the impression that there are still figures within the wider establishment who reflect the sentiments of ordinary Iranians. The disillusionment of the people has indeed become far more pronounced in recent years, blaming the regime rather than outside forces for Iran’s domestic crises, and seeing Iran’s regional policies as detrimental to the national interest and the well-being of Iranians at home.
Given the deeply entrenched crisis of legitimacy and widespread popular condemnation that all factions of the elite are facing – from reformists to Rafsanjani-style moderates to hardliners – such interventions may ultimately serve the purpose of suggesting that there are still elements within the system that speak on behalf of the people and can advance their interests.
In this vein, Sadeq Zibakalam later stated in an interview that the June presidential elections are «dead» and have no chance of being «revived», there being no way to convince those 24 million who had voted for Rouhani to take to the polls. An exception might present itself, however, were reformists to campaign on the issues of freedom and democracy.
He also said that he believed that Faezeh Hashemi would be the «best candidate» for the presidency, despite that fact that, according to the Islamic Republic’s constitution, a woman cannot become president.
Secondly, Faezeh Hashemi’s vocabulary reflected the terminology characteristic of the wider reformist-pragmatic camp. From the afore-mentioned focus on «development» all the way to «reform». The latter concept, in particular, has turned out to be a chimaera, very much understood by the country at large. Thirdly, her discussion of her father’s legacy clearly tended towards glorification. For instance, she repeatedly stressed that he was advancing, if not implementing, «freedom and democracy».
In brief, her criticism doesn’t derive from a truly progressive standpoint, but rather from that of a «loyal opposition». Hashemi is seeking to change the direction the Islamic Republic has taken under the leadership of Supreme Leader Khamenei – especially since his falling out with long-time ally and erstwhile kingmaker Rafsanjani during the Ahmadinejad era – by safeguarding it, seeking merely limited modernisation and reform, rather than clear-cut democratisation.
The West’s Iran policy: change in the Islamic Republic requires pressure
Leaving the complex peculiarities and muddy waters of Iran’s domestic political arena aside, the interview offers an important lesson for Western policymakers, just as U.S. President Biden has promised to re-engage Iran. This lies in the fact that pressure is an indispensable, yet not – in and of itself – sufficient feature (as can be seen from four years of «maximum pressure» on Iran), of any future U.S. or transatlantic policy toward Iran, assuming there is a desire to see changes to Iran’s domestic politics and regional policies.
As such, merely recommitting the U.S. to the JCPOA is not likely to yield those results, as Faezeh Hashemi rightly suggested. After all, as can be seen from numerous instances in the history of the Islamic Republic, Tehran has more often than not offered changes to its policies as a consequence of pressure, rather than the absence thereof.
What indeed many Iranians hoping to see change in their country fear is a quasi-appeasement policy under Biden, which would replace Trump’s admittedly futile and brutish «maximum pressure» campaign. The most progressive solution would be to incorporate the issue of human rights – a topic sorely missing from a recent call by experts that Biden return the U.S. to the Iran deal – in any future negotiations. This was a point recently emphasised by Germany’s most prominent Iranians in talks with Berlin’s top state institutions.
Human rights would be a welcome addition to a new transatlantic Iran policy that at least attempts to combine concerns over nuclear non-proliferation and Iran’s regional policies with those relating to Iranians’ democratic rights and the desire for Iranian economic recovery through easing of sanctions.