One of the driving forces behind Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was among the country’s most influential politicians. Rafsanjani led a life of contradictions. He wanted to loosen social restrictions in Iran, believing that they stood in the way of the nation’s modernization, yet he oversaw many political killings as president. His family benefited from the Shah’s economic policies, yet he spoke out against these very same ideas. He was influential in ensuring the Islamic Revolution’s success, yet the institutions that the revolution created barred him from running for president in 2013. Rafsanjani represented an unusual type of Iranian revolutionary, differing sharply from Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei. He was a liberal, supporting relations with the Western world and economic privatization. And though opinions within Iran’s liberal community are not united regarding his highly controversial life, one thing can be certain: with his death, moderates in Iran have lost their biggest ally.
Rafsanjani’s Rise to Power
Rafsanjani’s parents were pistachio farmers and had amassed much wealth by the time their seven children were born. During his adolescence, Rafsanjani began to study theology, notably the ideas of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. While studying, Rafsanjani became a vocal critic of the Shah’s White Revolution (1963-1978), a series of economic and cultural changes designed to westernize Iran. This political dissent led to his arrest, imprisonment, and torture.
While Khomeini was exiled in France, Rafsanjani became his representative in Iran, helping manage the beginning of the revolution. After Khomeini’s return and their subsequent success, Rafsanjani was appointed to the Council of the Islamic Revolution, a group that created the institutions of the emerging political order. He would then become the first speaker of the new Majlis (Parliament) in 1980. He remained the speaker of the Majlis until the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when he ran for the presidency. Espousing a policy of privatization, he gained the support of the middle and upper classes of Iran and won the election. During his presidency from 1989-97, he was tasked with reconstructing Iran after the destructive war with Iraq.
Though Iran’s bourgeoisie saw the benefits of his reconstruction and liberalizing policy, he was not able to help the working and rural classes, leading to increased resentment against him. Rumors even circulated among the lower classes of Iran that he had millions of dollars stashed away in Swiss bank accounts and that he owned Starbucks.
Rafsanjani in Modern Iranian Politics
One of Iran’s most influential parliamentarians and presidents, Rafsanjani also played an active role in Iranian politics after leaving office. He was one of the most important voices in moderate Iran’s struggle to rekindle relations with the Western world. He wanted Iran to have a larger role in the world economy, sharply differing from his hardline colleagues, who did not want to see any type of economic relationship between Iran and the United States. Rafsanjani also wanted to rebuild ties with Arab countries, though this effort was not fully realized.
The former president became a vocal supporter of his fellow moderates, and he endorsed Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 elections, hoping that Khatami would continue the globalizing foreign policy that he pursued during his two terms. Ayatollah Khamenei was a vocal supporter of Khatami’s opponent, Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, yet after the election, he said that he “would treat anyone whose name emerges from the ballot box as [he] treated Rafsanjani.” This tolerance of Rafsanjani’s protégé demonstrates how the Supreme Leader continued to respect his fellow revolutionary.
After Khatami’s second term, Rafsanjani ran for a third term in 2005. He was handily defeated by the obscure mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who carried rural and working class voters. However, Rafsanjani’s sway over public opinion continued as the years went on, and in 2009, he became one of the leading voices of the Green Movement. In the midst of protests, Rafsanjani gave a speech at Friday prayers—attended by about 1.5 million people—in which he criticized the government’s media censorship. This landed Rafsanjani in hot water with Iran’s conservatives, and in 2013, the Guardian Council, tasked with vetting presidential candidates, disqualified him from running for president. Thus, Rafsanjani resolved to publicly support Rouhani, and the two became close allies and friends. Rafsanjani was a staunch supporter of the nuclear deal, the crowning achievement of Rouhani’s presidency, because it helped realize his vision of an Iran more involved in the world economy. One of Rafsanjani’s final official positions of power was on the Assembly of Experts, the organization that chooses the Supreme Leader.
Why his death will impact Iranian politics
Through his complex relationship with the Supreme Leader, Rafsanjani was able to exert influence over the Islamic Republic throughout its existence. Alex Vatanka of the Middle East Institute explains that, though in many ways he was the reason Ayatollah Khamenei rose to power, their relationship was not without pushback from the Supreme Leader. The two began post-revolutionary life as “like-minded individuals” within the Islamic Republican Party and continued their close relationship under Khomeini’s leadership. However, during Rafsanjani’s presidency, Khamenei began to distance himself politically from his fellow revolutionary. While Rafsanjani focused on the economy, Khamenei was able to quietly influence security, the military, and other aspects of “hard power.” Vatanka speculates that the two men “had dirt on each other” and when they started to differ in opinion, their initial love affair became a political “marriage of convenience.”
Though the two men began to drift apart, their personal relationship still allowed Rafsanjani to influence Khamenei in a way that no other Iranian politician could. According to Vatanka, “Rafsanjani is the person who brought Khamenei into Khomeini’s inner circle. Before [that], Khamenei was a nobody. He owes everything to Rafsanjani.” This personal history allowed Rafsanjani to have leverage over the Supreme Leader, engage him in political discourse, and ensure that Khamenei’s hardline stances would not be the only voice in Iranian politics. His death leaves a gap in the informal circle surrounding the Supreme Leader, who will now be surrounded almost entirely by people who share his beliefs. Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council described how Rafsanjani had a “special position” from which he could “push boundaries” and criticize the regime. Rafsanjani was the most liberal voice that could truly influence Ayatollah Khamenei, and, with him gone, no one will be able to keep Iran’s hardline leadership in check. As Karim Sadjadpour, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told PBS, “an influential counterweight against [hardliners] has now been removed.” Further, Vatanka believes that, though some of the “cooler heads” in the regime may be able to criticize Khamenei, nobody had the fifty-year close personal relationship with him that Rafsanjani had, and no one can fully replace him.
Rafsanjani’s influence extended to the presidency, and he acted both as Rouhani’s mentor and as his closest political ally. Former Iranian official Seyed Hossein Mousavian argued that Rafsanjani’s support “had a major role in Rouhani’s win.” Rafsanjani gave Rouhani legitimacy among many staunch defenders of the Islamic Revolution, helping spur Rouhani to victory. Though, according to Vatanka, the impact of his death on Rouhani’s presidential campaign cannot be fully known, this tent-support for him that Rafsanjani was able to consolidate will not be as strong as it was in 2013. Moreover, moderates who are “not satisfied with Rouhani” may break away from his coalition and run against him.
As president, Rouhani has been playing a large role in Iran’s liberal community, and many view him as Rafsanjani’s natural successor. However, with Rouhani’s own political future uncertain, Iranian moderates must figure out how to maintain their influence. With Rafsanjani’s death, his influence is gone, and Iranian moderates will now have to coalesce around a new leader, Rouhani, to ensure that their country can continue progressing.
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