DUBAI: Seeing two of your children jailed in three days would not normally signal your luck is on the up. But for the great survivor of Iranian politics it could mean just that.
Few Iranians have wielded more influence than Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997 and a behind-the-scenes operator since the birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
But since voicing sympathy for the protesters who said President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 was rigged, Rafsanjani has come under intense criticism from hardliners and seen his power fade.
Ahmadinejad survived the protests thanks to a security crackdown and the support of Iran’s most powerful authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Three years on, with the leadership divided and under intense pressure from economic sanctions, there is growing talk of the need once again for some Rafsanjani pragmatism.
“The reformists have been closed out, conservatives have little attraction because of the situation Iran is in and there is potential for Rafsanjani,” said a well-informed Iranian source based in Europe.
“Since the 2009 election, the stature of the leader has diminished and Rafsanjani has gained credibility.”
On Saturday, his daughter Faezeh, who openly backed Ahmadinejad’s election rivals, was jailed for spreading “anti-government propaganda” and, two days later, her brother Mehdi was incarcerated on return from three years abroad.
But rather being the latest humiliation for Rafsanjani, 78,who was stopped from leading Friday prayers three years ago and lost his post at the top of an important state body, analysts say it may be a sign his fortunes are improving.
The events could indicate a deal between Rafsanjani and Khamenei who may be looking to ease the diplomatic and economic isolation of a country hit by sanctions from the West which wants to force Tehran to curb its nuclear programme.
“The arrest of Rafsanjani’s children ... could be used as a tool by Khamenei to please those within the regime who have been calling for them to be arrested.” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert at the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel.
“Once Rafsanjani’s children are free, Khamenei could bring him back to the fold with less internal resistance,” he added. Many cite Rafsanjani’s role in the hosting of a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran last month as evidence he is being allowed back into the mainstream. He was photographed alongside Khamenei and sat next to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Although few believe he will himself run for the presidency next June, Rafsanjani - known in Iran as ‘the shark’ for his smooth, unbearded face and his political guile - may well exert enough influence to be, once again, something of a king-maker.
That may be welcomed by the West frustrated by the lack of progress on the nuclear issue since Ahmadinejad took office in2005, seeing off Rafsanjani’s comeback bid.
“Rafsanjani is still committed to the revolution but he offers the realisation that you have to adapt and move forward. That wouldn’t be a bad thing,” said a Western diplomat in Iran.
As president, Rafsanjani pursued moderate policies -economic liberalisation and more stable relations with the West.
For Iranians, Rafsanjani, born into a wealthy pistachio farming family, has been a figure of suspicion and grudging respect for the vast fortune he has amassed.
He is also remembered for persuading the ailing founder of the Islamic Republic - Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini - to accept a peace deal after eight brutal years of war with Iraq. Within a year, Khomeini was dead.
In a move orchestrated by Rafsanjani, the body that chooses Iran’s leader appointed Khamenei who was president at the time. Grainy footage of the meeting shows Rafsanjani cajoling the gathered clerics to support the nomination of Khamenei who looks hesitant, saying he was against the move.
But despite their closely entwined political stories, the men have vastly contrasting outlooks. Rafsanjani believed reform was the key to an enduring Islamic state while Khamenei feared it could hasten its demise.
“Had it not been for Rafsanjani, Khamenei would have never become supreme leader. Those close to Rafsanjani say he rules the day he helped Khamenei,” said Karim Sadjadpour of theCarnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
The surprise return of Rafsanjani’s 41-year-old son, accused of fomenting unrest after the 2009 vote, could indicate a direct challenge to the conservative factions who loathe his father, a dare for them to take action.
“Mehdi believes the situation won’t get better after the next election and that’s why he wanted to come back now,” said the Iranian source. “He’s determined to face the charges and wants to defend himself.”
A trial would act as a proxy for all Iranian opposition figures, including the 2009 presidential candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Medhi Karoubi, who have been under house arrest without legal process since February 2011, said Iranian-born Farideh Farhi of the University of Hawaii.
“His return is a gambit with the intent to challenge those who have accused him,” Farhi said. “Staying in exile might have kept him out of prison but was neither good for him or his father politically.”