Rafsanjani’s death put an end to his goal to alter Iranian foreign policy, a change that he believed to be necessary for the regime’s survival. His death could significantly impact the regime’s internal balance of power and strengthen the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards’ position to advance their regional policies that have so far fueled violence and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
The death of former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, an architect of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a leading figure of the regime who was personally responsible for its grave human rights violations, the extermination of tens of thousands of dissidents and spread of Iran-sponsored terrorism abroad could a have significant impact on the regime and its policies and could weaken the position of President Hassan Rowhani, Rafsanjani’s protégé.
He represented the so-called pragmatist faction of the regime and in recent years opposed the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards on several key issues and publicly warned about the disastrous consequences of Iranian regional policies and military intervention in Syria to assist the Bashar Assad regime to slaughter his own people.
While the rift between Rafsanjani and the Supreme Leader dates back to the early 1990s, the divide widened considerably in recent years. In 2012-2013, the Iranian regime was experiencing its most trying time in decades as the international economic sanctions crippled the Iranian economy, the population was on the verge of a rebellion and Iran's main regional ally, the Syrian regime, faced an existential threat.
As a result, Rafsanjani became vocal in opposition to the Supreme Leader’s policies. Under immense pressure, Ayatollah Khamenei was forced to back down, though temporarily, with his critics agreeing to Rowhani’s victory in the presidential election and accepting to compromise in the nuclear negotiations.
Backed by Rafsanjani, Rowhani’s main challenge was to rescue the Iranian economy believing that Iran’s policies in the region and military involvement in several countries posed real obstacles to the government’s efforts in improving diplomatic and economic relations with the West and convincing foreign companies and financial institutions to deal with and invest in Iran’s depleted economy.
A détente with the US
Rafsanjani became the most prominent figure in the regime to publicly demand a change in Iranian foreign policy, a détente with the US and suggested a comprehensive agreement with the US and regional countries to reduce tensions and resolve the regional crisis. As a result, he became a staunch critic of the Supreme Leader and Revolutionary Guards’ increasing military involvement in Syria.
During a public speech on August 30 2013, Rafsanjani denounced Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes and stated that Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Two days later, during a meeting with a group of Iraqi dignitaries and officials, Rafsanjani once again denounced the Assad regime’s crimes against the Syrian people, a policy that according to Rafsanjani would empower radical Sunni groups and threaten Iranian and Iraqi security.
More recently, in an interview with the Iranian Aftab News published on May 30 2016, Rafsanjani warned of Iran’s untenable involvement in several countries in the region and stated: “now, the Arab and Muslim countries in the region are confronting us and this is a serious challenge that should be addressed. To safeguard our interests, we are currently stuck in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Afghanistan. Such involvement is difficult to sustain and cannot be abandoned easily either. We are facing a difficult situation in the region and we should resolve it by adopting wise policies.”
More broadly, Rafsanjani led a public campaign in favor of re-establishing diplomatic ties with the US but failed to impact the Supreme Leader’s position on this issue. In response to Rafsanjani’s faction, the Supreme Leader has repeatedly declared that a failure in Syria and a withdrawal from the region will result in the downfall of Iranian regional policies altogether, a scenario that could weaken the regime’s position inside Iran and threaten its survival. His vision was well illustrated in a notable speech that he gave in the city of Mashhad on March 20, 2016 and explained that the Iran-US rapprochement and a retreat from current regional policies could endanger the future of the regime.
Rafsanjani died fall short of his goal to alter Iranian foreign policy, a change that he believed to be necessary for the regime’s survival. His death could significantly impact the regime’s internal balance of power and strengthen the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards’ position to advance their regional policies that have so far fueled violence and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.
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Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and political analyst specialized in Iranian regime activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West. He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.