Iran after Rafsanjani: What the passing of a 'pillar of pragmatism' means

Former Iranian President Rafsanjani died Sunday. A power-broker of the 1979 revolution, he supported contacts with the US and helped orchestrate the 2013 victory of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate.

Vahid Salemi/Associated Press
Monday's front pages of Iranian newspapers all covered the death Sunday of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mourners from the country's president to passers-by on the street paid their respects to Rafsanjani amid three days of mourning.

When Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani cast his ballot in 2005, the presidential finalist looked every inch an Old Guard Iranian revolutionary-turned-pragmatist.

An architect and key power-broker of the 1979 Islamic revolution, the two-time president swept like a strutting monarch into the cramped north Tehran prayer hall where the father of that revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, once preached – and where Mr. Rafsanjani’s casket has rested since his death on Sunday night.

Wearing immaculately pressed robes and speaking with a savior’s certainty, Rafsanjani vowed to “play a historical role, to stop the domination of extremism.” He spoke of his destiny “to serve the revolution until the last day of my life.” 

Within hours, Rafsanjani would suffer a humiliating defeat to archconservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the white-turbaned cleric would fulfill his promise, continuing to play an outsized role in Iranian politics behind the scenes, supporting contact with the nation's arch-foe, the United States, supporting Iran’s nuclear talks with world powers, and – crucially – helping to orchestrate the shock 2013 election victory of the relatively moderate Hassan Rouhani over a slate of hard-line candidates.

As Mr. Rouhani vies for reelection in May, the question today is whether Rafsanjani’s legacy will exert as much pragmatic influence in death, as the man himself did in the later years of his life. 

“Rafsanjani’s political gravitas went beyond political factions,” says Adnan Tabatabai, an Iran analyst and head of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a Bonn-based think tank. “Even his opponents knew he wanted to preserve the [Islamic revolutionary] system. That gave him a more solid position than any reformist will ever have.”

Where did Rafsanjani’s power come from?

Like many of Iran’s aging revolutionaries, Rafsanjani spent time as a political prisoner of the pro-West Shah in the 1960s and 1970s. His mug shot hangs on the wall of a downtown Tehran prison-turned-museum, where the future supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also had a cell.

Rafsanjani was put in charge of the final stages of Iran’s war effort during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict. And in 1989 he orchestrated the ascent of Ayatollah Khamenei as supreme leader after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, by telling the Assembly of Experts that “imam” Khomeini had privately told him that Khamenei was his chosen successor.

Rafsanjani was active in securing the release of Western hostages held by Shiite militiamen in Lebanon.

He was also accused in a German court, with other Iranian officials, of approving the assassination of three Iranian Kurdish opposition leaders and their translator at Berlin's Mykonos restaurant in 1992 – one of scores of killings of Iranian dissidents in Europe and Iraq in the 1980s and 1990s. Separately, Argentine officials accused senior Iranians including Rafsanjani of complicity in a 1994 attack on a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in which 85 people were killed. Iran denies any role in such attacks.

Allegations of corruption and fantastic wealth – in 2003 Forbes magazine estimated his family's net worth to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars – led to election humiliations. A 2005 campaign video that portrayed him as a doting grandfather keen on watching soccer games on TV was filmed from a mansion in wealthy north Tehran.

That proved no match for candidate Ahmadinejad’s video tour of his home in a working-class suburb of east Tehran, which was capped by an obvious dig at his main opponent: “Do you have a sauna and Jacuzzi?” His son replies: “What are those?”

But much of Rafsanjani’s lost popularity was restored among Iran’s legions of moderate voters when he was seen to back the aspirations of the Green Movement, which was spurred by anger over the 2009 election that reinstalled Mr. Ahmadinejad and led to weeks of protests.

Rafsanjani's passing could hurt reformists and moderates, even though neither camp represented his ideological home, Mr. Tabatabai says. “He was the main validator for the likes of Rouhani among political, economic and clerical elites,” and was respected in the Qom seminary and among technocrats.

Will his loss affect Rouhani’s reelection bid?

Rouhani was famously elected in 2013 because of a joint appeal by Rafsanjani and former President Mohammad Khatami. Their call, issued just three days before the election, resonated with voters disillusioned by the 2009 results, many of whom had vowed to stay home on election day.

Rafsanjani once boasted that he had pushed Rouhani’s support from 3 percent to 50 percent of the vote to achieve a surprising upset. Rafsanjani himself had been barred from running – the latest episode of an up-and-down political career that forced Rafsanjani to mount one comeback after another.

“He was the pillar of pragmatism in Iran, the glue that kept a desperately divided camp together in the face of brutal pressure from the establishment,” says Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “His absence will be a blow, but not a fatal one, to Rouhani and his camp. Rouhani has become Rafsanjani 2.0. He is now as much of a canny political operator as Rafsanjani once was.”

There was another factor, too, in Rafsanjani’s impact on the 2013 vote.

“People believed that Hashemi [Rafsanjani] was the right person who could limit the supreme leader’s power because of his strong personality, and even his disqualification couldn’t end his effect on the election,” says a Tehran researcher who has advised Iranian governments and asked not to be named.

“It is right that with Hashemi’s death, moderates have lost a very brave and powerful supporter, but his death can help them to have people’s votes in the short term,” says the researcher.

“It is very important to recognize that it is a decisive moment in Iran, where political forces and government action have to be profitable for the Iranian people,” she says. “Whether you are Hashemi or the supreme leader, you have to show functionality of the Islamic Republic. Politics in Iran have gone beyond personalities.”

Will Iran’s foreign policy change?

Rafsanjani is likely to be remembered as much for his determination to ease Iran’s isolation – in the second half of the revolution, he stated several times that Khomeini did not intend for the “Death to America!” slogan to last forever – as much as for revolutionary excesses of the 1980s and 1990s. 

He was a key Iranian interlocutor in the Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s, with its backdoor arms-for-hostages deals with the US that were encouraged by Israel and that tarnished the Reagan White House. He offered the US firm Conoco the first oil contract to a foreign company since 1979, though President Bill Clinton nixed it.

Before the 2005 vote, Rafsanjani sent emissaries to European embassies in Tehran, telling them that if he won the presidency again, he would resume contact with Washington.

Years later, that desire to re-engage the West found a new voice in Rouhani.    

“Rafsanjani was an important guarantor for Rouhani’s outreach to the West among influential clerics – particularly during the nuclear talks,” says Tabatabai of CARPO. “But the actual policies were not shaped by Rafsanjani, which is why I doubt his death will affect Iran’s foreign policy in the future as much as other factors like nuclear deal implementation, [US President-elect Donald] Trump, and Persian Gulf dynamics.”

Rouhani aimed high. He promised Iranians that the nuclear deal would end all US, European, and UN sanctions against Iran, resulting in a new prosperity for a crippled economy. Since the deal was agreed to in July 2015, though, Iran has so far seen modest economic returns – and the prospect of even fewer in the future, with a new Republican-led Congress already drafting new sanctions legislation, and a president-elect who calls the nuclear deal “disastrous.” 

“[Rafsanjani] represents the rational face of the Islamic Republic both in domestic and foreign policy,” says the Tehran researcher. “I think Hashemi’s death is a big blow for the Islamic Republic, not only for Rouhani.”

An often-testy relationship with Khamenei

Rafsanjani was instrumental in cutting through the din of arguing clerics to convince the Assembly of Experts in 1989 to anoint Khamenei – who was president twice in the 1980s – as Iran’s second-ever supreme leader, who bears the official title of God’s temporary "representative on earth.”

But despite their shared history, the two have also clashed bitterly, and often been rivals.

Rafsanjani’s “evolution from a founding father to loyal opposition was extraordinary,” says Vaez. “He came to embody Machiavelli’s adage: He who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined.” 

Khamenei posted a message on his website that expressed his “deep regret and sorrow” at the death of someone whose friendship of nearly six decades stretches back to being seminarians in Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Karbala. 

“The loss of a comrade, a companion with whom one has cooperated and felt close to for a full 59 years, is difficult and overwhelming,” Khamenei wrote. 

But even while Khamenei praised Rafsanjani’s “unique intelligence and friendliness” and said Rafsanjani was a “reliable source of trust,” he also noted their disagreements.

“At times, a difference of opinions … during this long companionship, never managed to cut the ties of friendship between us,” wrote Khamenei. Those trying to exploit those differences with “evil … could not lead to any flaws in the deep, personal love this humble person felt for him.”

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