The President’s Daughter and Dissent in Iran

The daughter of Iran’s former president has publicly broken two of the Islamic Republic’s biggest political taboos

The President’s Daughter and Dissent in Iran
Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of the late former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani/AFP/Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Two days after a right-wing mob invaded the U.S. Capitol in an abortive insurrection, a different kind of spectacle made headlines in Iran. In an online video interview, former MP Faezeh Hashemi caused uproar by breaking taboos on two sensitive subjects: the impact of U.S. policy on prospects for change in Iran and the legacy of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of Iran’s Quds Force.

Hashemi was speaking on the fourth anniversary of the passing of her father, the late President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful figures in the turbulent four-decade history of the Islamic Republic. It was also just five days after the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.

Toward the end of a wide-ranging interview, Hashemi argued, “for Iran, I would have liked to see Mr. Trump being [re-]elected. However, if I were an American, I would not have voted for Mr. Trump.” Asked by the interviewer to elaborate, Hashemi explained that whenever Iranians demand reforms (eslâhât), “nothing happens”; instead they face a crackdown (sarkoub) — a likely reference to the January 2018 “Dey protests” and the November 2019 “Âbân protests” during which discontent over economic hardship escalated into calls for the downfall of the regime. She went on to say, “So maybe if the pressures exerted by Mr. Trump would have continued, we would have been forced to change some of our policies. And these policy changes would have definitely been to people’s benefit.”

More provocative still were her comments on Soleimani and Iran’s regional policies of “resistance.” Amid the week-long official commemoration of “martyr Haj Qassem,” she said she “hasn’t heard a single person asking what Mr. Soleimani actually did.” Far from advancing Iran’s interests, she argued, Soleimani’s actions in Syria and those of the wider “resistance” have impeded Iran’s development in areas such as the economy, politics, civil liberties, and foreign policy.

Once off air, Hashemi was seen telling the interviewer that her statements may have been too “peppery” (tond-o-tiz). But to a considerable portion of the population, such views are not uncommon.

Unlike many in the West, Hashemi is not sanguine about Joe Biden’s victory. She described the U.S. Democrats as “a bit loosey-goosey” (shol-o-vel) and concluded that with a reduction of U.S. pressure and the easing of sanctions — which may be in the cards with the incoming administration — Iran’s regional policies are likely to persist and “our erroneous stand will be further strengthened.”

Hashemi noted that despite the undeniable impact, sanctions alone cannot be blamed for the country’s economic woes, nor can the intervention by the principalists (Osoulgarâyân), the domestic hardline rivals of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration. Blame also lies with Rouhani, long viewed as one of her late father’s mentees.

She considers the president and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s record in their second term simply “indefensible.” They have taken positions “more hardline than the hardliners themselves,” she says. Neither are Rouhani’s economic policies adequate, she claims, nor is Zarif sufficiently in control of his portfolio to be able to contain the intransigence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hashemi also rejected the regime-promoted propaganda depicting Soleimani, the late IRGC commander, as a national hero who promoted Iranian national interests and security in a dangerously chaotic region roiled with anti-Iranian, anti-Shiite terrorism. She revealed that before Soleimani went to Syria, he sought her late father’s advice, and “Dad said, ‘Don’t go.’”

In fact, Hashemi Rafsanjani was the first high-ranking official of the Islamic Republic who, after the August 2013 Ghouta chemical attack, openly criticized Iran’s intervention in Syria. Others in the “Rafsanjani camp,” such as the prominent former Tehran mayor Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, also publicly criticized Iran’s regional policies as relying too heavily on violence. He said this at an April 2017 campaign rally for the re-election of Rouhani, only to be rebuked later by the president’s spokesperson.

This criticism is rooted in a key tenet of the school of thought associated with her late father: that Iran’s foreign policy must serve its (mainly economic) aim of elevating the country to a more advanced stage of development. This “developmentalist foreign policy” was initially embraced by the Rouhani presidency and informed its “constructive engagement” with the West. The success of this strategy, however, was counteracted by the regional policies favored by the IRGC (including the late Soleimani) and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It was at odds with the more offensive, confrontational, and revolutionary approach favored mainly, though not exclusively, by Iran’s hardliners.

In speaking of the protests that twice swept the nation during the Rouhani era, she asked if anyone was heard chanting “death to America.” The question was rhetorical, since not only was the chant absent, it was actually replaced by the slogan “Our enemy is right at home, they always say it’s America” (Doshman-e mâ haminjâst, hamash migan Âmrikâst). Hashemi said people were aware that the problem “laid elsewhere” — a likely reference to Khamenei and the IRGC.

The reactions to the interview have been predictable. The Islamic Republic’s hardliners and fundamentalists have been fulminating since it was a thinly veiled attack on their performance. Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor-in-chief of the hardline daily Kayhan, wrote that precisely at a time when America finds itself in a crisis of identity, Western-oriented domestic forces have tied their fortunes to the Trump White House and applaud its policies. On its title page, the ultra-conservative daily Vatan-e Emrooz flatly accused her of “mourning Trump on her father’s death anniversary.” The front page headline “Security or freedom?” is in fact a reflection of the thinking of this political camp that sees freedom and security as mutually exclusive concepts.

Hashemi, of course, has long been a thorn in the side of Iranian hardliners.

Hashemi, of course, has long been a thorn in the side of Iranian hardliners. As an outspoken first daughter, she promoted women’s rights and, in July 1998, founded the first women’s paper in Iran, the weekly Zan (Woman). (The paper was banned in April 1999 as a result of powerful hardline opposition.) More recently, in the wake of the November 2019 protests that were put down with brute force by regime forces, she called upon the Supreme Leader to resign and open the way to structural reforms.

But she also received support. Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Tehran University politics professor from the “Rafsanjani camp,” wrote on social media that she “has honestly reflected the sentiments of millions of her compatriots.” Also, the editor-in-chief of Etemad Online tweeted that her opponents should be free to respond to the content rather than engage in “character assassination.”

Meanwhile, in an open letter her brother and current Chairman of the City Council of Tehran, Mohsen Hashemi, asked her to apologize, claiming her remarks had offended the Rafsanjani family and its supporters. This, however, has been widely seen as a signal of Mohsen Hashemi’s presidential ambitions.

Despite the accuracy of many of her criticisms, the interview conducted by the reformist Ensaf News, needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

First, the interview creates the impression that there are figures in the wider establishment who share the growing disaffection with the ruling regime. But given the regime’s crisis of legitimacy and the discontent with all factions of the elite, such interventions may be self-serving.

Second, Hashemi used the standard terminology of the wider reformist-pragmatic camp — from “development” to “reform.” The latter, in particular, has turned out to be a chimera and during those two uprisings, protesters explicitly rejected reformism, instead chanting revolutionary slogans.

Third, her discussion of her father’s legacy tended toward glorification. She glossed over the less seemly side of his rule and insisted that he had been advancing, if not implementing, “freedom and democracy.” Far from proposing a progressive alternative, she spoke from the standpoint of a “loyal opposition,” less interested in democratization than in safeguarding the regime with limited reform.

Still, the interview offers important insights, especially as the new Biden administration takes office with the promise of re-engaging Iran. As Hashemi rightly suggests, merely recommitting the United States to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, is unlikely to change Iran’s domestic politics or regional policies. More often than not in the history of the Islamic Republic, Tehran has offered changes to its policies only as a consequence of pressure. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has been futile and brutal, but many Iranians fear its replacement by a quasi-appeasement policy under Biden could leave them vulnerable to the regime’s caprice.

Hashemi’s comments are bold insofar as it is unusual in Iran for an establishment figure to challenge the core narratives of the regime, especially at a critical time such as this. But they resonate with a large segment of the public. Most Iranians would like better relations with the West, but they are also realistic about the prospects. They understand that any détente would be hollow unless it also takes into account their rights and aspirations. They would welcome a policy that is mindful of their human and political rights and places some constraints on the regime’s abuses.

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