Uncompromising rhetoric aside, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's recent decision to reappoint Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as head of Iran's Expediency Council could be a sign that he is preparing the regime for making concessions to settle the nuclear impasse. If Tehran does decide to negotiate seriously with the P5+1 (i.e., the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Khamenei would certainly need someone like Rafsanjani to shepherd the process. As economic pressure on Iran increases and its banking system begins to buckle, the regime may feel compelled to compromise within the next few months.
Despite his consistent and successful efforts to marginalize Rafsanjani in the domestic political sphere, Khamenei surprisingly asked him to continue as head of the Expediency Council for a new term that began March 14. In doing so, the Supreme Leader allowed him to retain his only remaining political position. In 2010, Rafsanjani lost his post as head of the Assembly of Experts, which nominally oversees the Supreme Leader's activities and the succession process.
The reappointment has seemingly little to do with the country's domestic politics. Khamenei has systematically weakened the constitutionally mandated Expediency Council in recent years. For example, he appointed Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi to head the Board of Arbitration and Adjustment of Relations among the Three Branches of Government, a new extraconstitutional entity that can easily interfere with the Expediency Council's own duty to resolve intragovernmental differences. And in May 2011, he created the Islamic-Iranian Model of Progress Center, a body with a job description matching the Expediency Council's other main mandate of outlining the government's general policies. In short, neither Rafsanjani nor his council is likely to play an important role on the domestic front.
Furthermore, most of Rafsanjani's allies on the council were not reappointed, including former intelligence minister Muhammad Muhammadi Ray Shahary, former oil minister Bijan Zanganeh, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (the opposition leader currently under house arrest), former head of state television and radio Muhammad Hashemi (Rafsanjani's brother), and former Guardian Council member Muhammad Emami Kashani. They were likely replaced because they failed to condemn the opposition Green Movement or support the Supreme Leader's positions over the past three years.
More striking was Khamenei's reappointment of two significant council members: Hassan Rouhani, former chief nuclear negotiator and head of the Supreme Council for National Security, and Gholam Reza Aqa Zadeh, former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. Both are very close to Rafsanjani, and neither has spoken out against the opposition or vocally supported Khamenei during the tenure; in fact, Aqa Zadeh had close ties to Mousavi. Therefore, removing them would not have surprised anyone or had any significant political repercussions. Their continued presence on the council reinforces the theory that Khamenei is using the appointments to preserve the foreign policy option of nuclear compromise. Indeed, Rafsanjani, Rouhani, and Aqa Zadeh would make excellent interlocutors with the West in the event of negotiations. Their positions on the Expediency Council mean that the body could be charged with ending the nuclear impasse, thereby allowing the Supreme Leader to avoid responsibility for the compromises necessary to reach such a deal.