Tehran asked the relatives of Rafsanjani and Khomeini to intervene

As anti-government protests sweep across Iran, its senior leaders make a secret appeal to two of the Islamic Republic’s founding families, Rafsanjani clan and Khomeini, the moderates who were ousted from power by hardliners, people familiar with the talks told the Wall Street Journal.

According to the newspaper, the head of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, asked representatives of these two families to speak publicly to quell the unrest. The sources said that if this had happened, it would have been followed by reform measures sought by the demonstrators, but the two families rejected this approach.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his inner circle are facing a dilemma after two months of fighting nationwide protests. The government’s purges of prominent rivals and reformists in recent years have narrowed their options for quelling one of the most serious internal challenges to their rule in the 43-year history of the mullahs’ regime.

From the protests in Tehran (archive)

From the protests in Tehran (archive)

Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s former president, warned this week in a speech posted on a reformist social media site, “A large part of society shares the demonstrators’ dissatisfaction. The continuation of the status quo increases the causes of societal collapse“.

The presence of moderates and reformists in Iran’s government provided a valve to relieve political pressure, but both factions have seen their role in Iranian politics diminish in recent years. In this context, Majid Ansari, a former vice president under former centrist President Hassan Rouhani, said this month at a forum in Tehran: “We are reducing competition day by day, and trusted political activists are gradually leaving the scene.”

According to the Wall Street Journal report, Tehran’s next steps to try to tame the protests are likely to include attempts to divide the protesters, using misinformation to portray the protests as the work of foreign spies, and carrying out executions in hopes of deterring people considering participating.

Khamenei could also dismiss Ali Shamkhani, head of the National Security Council, or pressure President Ebrahim Raisi to step down for failing to stem the unrest, according to former Iranian officials.

In this context, Mostafa Pakzad, a Tehran-based consultant who advises foreign companies in Iran, said, “The regime has only one way, which is violent repression, but this uprising is spontaneous, without a leader … so it is very difficult to dismantle it by force.”

Contact with the families of Khomeini and Rafsanjani indicates that the government is looking for other measures to quell the demonstrations and is considering concessions that were considered unthinkable only months ago.

According to the report, there are few other Iranian families with deep roots in the highest levels of power in the Islamic Republic. Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric whose return from exile helped topple the monarchy in 1979, was the father of the Iranian revolution and its first supreme leader until his death a decade later. For his part, it was Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani who engineered Khamenei’s rise to office. He was the country’s president from 1989 to 1997, and kept abreast of Iran’s domestic politics until his death in 2017.

In late October, Shamkhani invited Majid Ansari, who is close to the Khomeini family, and Hossein Marashi, a relative of Rafsanjani’s wife, to a meeting in his office in Tehran. Also in attendance was Behzad Nabavi, who founded the Islamic Republic’s intelligence service and is now close to former reformist President Ali Khatami, according to the sources.

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani

Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani

At the meeting, Shamkhani expressed confidence in the Islamic Republic’s resilience, saying he had received information that the United States was not seeking regime change, according to people briefed on the content of the meeting.

The sources said that if these two families had agreed to ask the demonstrators to stop protesting, reform measures could have followed immediately.

Since that meeting, however, some members of both families have publicly supported the protesters. Hassan Khomeini, a prominent reformist cleric and grandson of the republic’s founder, also issued a public call for sweeping political change.

According to the newspaper report, one of the dangers for the regime is that the groups that have supported the government, including the powerful clerics based in Qom, could reconsider their position if they begin to doubt Tehran’s ability to contain the unrest. And the “Wall Street Journal” considered that “what is more dangerous is that the Revolutionary Guards could formally seize power and replace Iran’s religious rule.”

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