On January 8, former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died of a heart attack at 82. His death marked the passing of one of the 1979 Iranian Revolution’s last founding patriarchs, those among Ayatollah Khomeini’s closest advisers and collaborators who went on to helm such key early institutions as the Council of the Islamic Revolution (CIR) and the Islamic Republican Party (IRP), and to refine the ideological contours of a theocracy birthed of violence. Some of these, such as Mohamed Beheshti, Mahmud Taleghani, and Morteza Motahari were assassinated right at the outset of the revolution. Others, including Abdulkarim Mousavi Ardebili and Mohamed-Reza Mahdavi-Kani, passed on with time. But none, certainly not even current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, embodied the travails and contradictions of Iran’s Revolution as deeply as Rafsanjani. Indeed, the latter was the one who brought Khamenei out of clerical oblivion in Mashhad and into the glare of revolutionary politics in 1979, paving his way toward membership in the CIR, the IRP, and following one impeachment and another assassination, as the third president of the Islamic Republic.
Hashemi Rafsanjani was a man seized by the conviction that the fledgling theocracy could both keep faith with Khomeini’s governing principle of Velayat-e Faghih, or rule of the Shi’a Jurisconsult, and still pursue a modern economy intertwined with those of leading industrial powers. His own political career symbolized this difficult dilemma, and no less, the chronic power struggle over the very soul of the Revolution.
As the eight-year war with Iraq slowly and painfully ground toward its futile conclusion, Khomeini appointed Rafsanjani, then already for years speaker of Parliament, to serve as commander-in-chief of Iran’s war effort, which he helped maneuver to a close with UN Resolution 598. Just a few years prior, he had with Khomeini’s full knowledge been a principal figure behind a covert and highly controversial operation to secure arms from Iran’s archrival the U.S., and via Israel, later to burst into the headlines as the Iran-Contra affair. After Khomeini’s death in June 1989, Rafsanjani successfully persuaded the Assembly of Experts that the late Imam had favored Khamenei as his successor – and privately told Rafsanjani just as much. In the enormous influence vacuum bequeathed by Khomeini, Rafsanjani was clearly hoping to install a ceremonial successor, even as he himself would occupy a presidency doubly empowered by the abolition of the prime ministry. Current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei thus owes his job-for-life, indeed possibly his entire political career, to Rafsanjani.
For a while, this tandem worked. Rafsanjani played on popular perception, largely justified, that he was the statesman most qualified to steer Iran’s post-war reconstruction and its high-voltage foreign relations (upon his death, one newspaper, Ebtekar, bid farewell to “Amir Kabir,” a reference to Qajar Iran’s highly capable 19th century reformer). Both joined forces against the radicals, whose vision of a socialist-type command economy wedded to uncompromising export of the Revolution marked and scarred Iranian policy throughout the 1980s. With Khomeini now gone and the Soviet Union – the paragon of command economies everywhere – in terminal necrosis, the radicals, represented by Mir-Hossein Mousavi as prime minister, soon lost influence. For its part, the Rafsanjani-Khamenei alliance advocated a capitalist economy based on private property and strategic caution in foreign policy.
Rafsanjani and Khamenei had long been comrades-in-arms, persecuted during the Shah’s years. But as each grew into his new role, the one as temporal head of Iran’s Republican superstructure, the other as high priest of the country’s Islamic-clerical undercroft, ideological differences soon burst into the open. Khamenei’s ability to win the security and intelligence establishment over to his side, starting from his years as president, shifted the balance of personal power in his favor, and he used this to undermine Rafsanjani’s liberalizing policies and his halting attempts at rapprochement with the United States. Rafsanjani had severely underestimated Khamenei and thereby miscalculated his own political standing. By the mid-1990s, Rafsanjani went on to create and lead the “Servants of Reconstruction,” his own brand of moderate conservatives guided by pragmatism and the necessity of economic liberalization.
Regarded as one of the Revolution’s principal architects and leading influences, Rafsanjani in this way switched loyalties. From the 1990s until 2005, he gradually forged an uneasy and frequently fraught alliance with the newly emergent reformist camp, although he would occasionally back conservative positions. In 2000, his popularity tanked when he came in 30th – last place – competing for a parliamentary seat representing Tehran. Then in 2005, Rafsanjani lost in the presidential elections’ run-off to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the relatively unknown mayor of Tehran who had come to embody the rise of the security state and thereby the aspirations of a new generation of combative conservatives, by whom even many among the traditional conservatives would eventually be put off.
Rafsanjani’s moment of truth came in 2009, when he publicly criticized the violent street crackdowns on the Green Movement led by reformist figures Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, which was in turn a popular reaction to Ahmadinejad’s perceived fraudulent reelection. If it wasn’t clear hitherto, it certainly was unmistakable henceforth where his bona fides lay. The consequences gradually took their toll on his career, such as when he lost his four-year chair of the Assembly of Experts to a traditional conservative in 2011, and when the powerful Council of Guardians nixed his candidacy for the presidential elections in 2013, citing his advanced age. At that point, he successfully threw his full political weight behind his protégé Hassan Rouhani’s candidacy.
Yet, all this adversity only had the effect of burnishing his image. By now closely identified with the influential Expediency Council, the chair of which he managed to retain from its post-war creation until his death, Rafsanjani reemerged, rebranded yet again, as a major pole of influence within Iran’s domestic politics and more importantly, a counterweight to Khamenei and those more hardline than him. Seemingly immune to the fate that had befallen the leading reformist dissenters, Rafsanjani also gained credit as an unsuppressible advocate of greater restraint on naked power, especially in respect of the Supreme Leader’s prerogatives. In 2013, before the anniversary of the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, he had the audacity to invoke another of Khomeini’s supposed final wishes, that Iranians should desist from chanting “Death to America” – the verbal manifestation of the country’s entire foreign policy cornerstone. Having dissociated himself from the traditional conservatives in the 1990s, he had now even earned the support and perhaps some limited respect of reformist voters looking for a figure to rally around.
What now then, that Rafsanjani is gone?
With Mir-Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karroubi in their sixth year of house arrest for “sedition,” and all media mention of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami banned, this leaves President Rouhani as the leading torchbearer of both the moderate centrists and the reformists, alongside his Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reformist former first Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref and perhaps the cleric grandson of the Revolution’s founder, Hassan Khomeini. Yet Rouhani is expected to face fierce conservative resistance to his reelection bid in May this year, despite the moderate-centrists’ modest plurality in Parliament and even more modest gains, amid persisting conservative control, in the Assembly of Experts since 2016.
His hardline detractors have selectively pointed to ongoing economic stagnation, unaided by oil prices still barely hovering above the $50 mark, and particularly the lack of access to international and especially European financial institutions and foreign investments, despite the promises of the nuclear agreement signed with the world powers in 2015. Not least of all, Khamenei himself has led the charge, albeit obliquely, thundering against the glacial pace of sanctions relief. Meanwhile, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards have made no attempt to mask their contempt for the nuclear agreement, openly testing new missile types, unveiling reverse-engineered ordnance-capable drones, and harassing U.S. forces patrolling the Persian Gulf. With incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s threats to abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal’s official name) and Congress’ recent renewal of sanctions, Iran’s security establishment and political class have been up in arms with countermeasure threats of their own.
The hardline judiciary has for its part harassed prominent figures associated with the moderates or reformists, including Deputy Speaker of Parliament Ali Motahari (a conservative who backed Rouhani’s nuclear deal and an end to the house arrests of the Green Movement’s leaders) and Hope List member of parliament Mahmoud Sadeghi. At the same time, it has ignited multiple inquisitions against Iranians with dual nationality, organizers of music concerts and, of all things, modelling gigs. In December, war erupted between the executive and the judiciary after Sadegh Larijani, the judiciary head, accused Rouhani of receiving electoral campaign funding from Babak Zanjani, a tycoon sentenced to death on corruption charges. In early January, the Guardian Council weighed in when spokesperson Abbas-Ali Kadkhodaei stressed that there was “no guarantee” that an “incumbent president” – Rouhani, clearly – would again be vetted for reelection campaign purposes by the powerful conservative watchdog, prompting a slew of criticism from Rouhani’s supporters across the non-conservative spectrum.
The list goes on.
In a world without Rafsanjani, the prospects of a leading figure effectively unifying the fractured conservative-hardline factions would not necessarily improve, nor would the alliance consisting of moderate-centrists and reformists, held together by adversity these past years, necessarily crumble. That Rouhani has lost his principal political benefactor is therefore a bump unlikely to seriously worsen (or improve) his own domestic prospects in the near term, including in the May presidential elections. Over time, the power contest is likely to play out at even higher levels. Rafsanjani’s absence would be far more acutely felt in the event the secretive, 88-member Assembly of Experts convened to (s)elect a new Supreme Leader – rather probable in the coming few years – since he would have been the prime mover in any veto coalition consisting of a third of the Assembly plus one, or 30 members.
It is surely a sobering measure of a nation’s body politic that even the personage widely regarded as the preeminent counterweight to its more extreme forces could only, later in life, have played a largely defensive, restraining role. Had his passing been a product of intrigue as occurred in the case of his 19th century hero and alter-ego Amir Kabir (under orders of his 21-year old sovereign, Nasr ol-Din Shah), Rafsanjani might just have been able to ignite in death what he could not in life – sufficient indignation for real reform.
Kevjn Lim is consultant analyst with IHS Markit and a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University’s Political Science department.