One of the founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and a powerful figure in Iran’s religious, social and political affairs, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died of heart attack at age 82, according to Iran’s state media.
He was known as the “pragmatic conservative”, billionaire mogul, shrewd political survivor, and core pillar of the Islamic revolution. Although similar to Iran’s hardliners, he valued the revolutionary principles of the Islamic Republic established in 1979 as well as political authoritarianism, while giving significant prioritization to national and economic interests as well. He believed that political authoritarianism and economic liberalization can go hand in hand, as he favored improving economic ties with the West in order to empower Iran’s political establishment.
From political landscapes, Rafsanjani’s death is viewed as strong blow against Iran’s reformists and moderates including President Hassan Rouhani who viewed Rafsanjani as a leading figure in their camp.
Rafsanjani came from within the religious and political establishment of the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, over time a rift began to widen between him and the hardliners, led by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on how to strengthen the political establishment of the Islamic Republic.
Rafsanjani was also considered one of the most Machiavellian, canniest, and often ruthless leaders who sometimes floated between Iran’s political factions to preserve his interests.
Wealthy farmer and ‘pragmatic conservative’ president
Ali Akbar Rafsanjani was born in 1934, to a wealthy and prosperous family of pistachio farmers in the city of Rafsanjan in Kerman, in southeastern of Iran. His father sent him to pursue his studies in the field of theology in the Shiite holy city of Qum. Rafsanjani’s destiny was about to dramatically change when met Ayatollah Khomeinei, the former Supreme Leader and founder of the Islamic Republic.
Rafsanjani became Khomeini’s staunch disciple supporting his teachings and theological theory of “Velayat-e-Faqih” which states that Islam gives the Islamic Jurist the custodianship over people. Joining Khomeini’s cause, Rafsanjani became a political activist in the 1960s and 70s, opposing Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and his efforts to modernize the country.
When Khomeini was sent into exile, Rafsanjani played a crucial role in gathering social and political support as well as funds for Khomeini. Rafsanjani frequently spent time in jail for his political activities and such as cooperating with the leftist terrorists, or groups that attempted to topple the government.
When, Shah was overthrown and Khomenei became the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani climbed the political ladder swiftly as Khomenei’s confidant and close advisor.
Rafsanjani was appointed as commander in chief of the military from 1980 until1989, during the Iran-Iraq war. During this time, he was also the speaker of the parliament. Later he was elected as the fourth president of the Islamic Republic for two consecutive terms from 1989 until 1997. He led key developments in Iran’s nuclear program. He was also the chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is in charge of removing or appointing a Supreme Leader.
Rafsanjani was also head of the Expediency Council in which its members are appointed by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Expediency Council serves as an advisory body for Khamenei and it resolves disputes between the Guardian Council and the parliament over legislation.
Rafsanjani became one of the richest people in Iran. He was featured in Forbes List of Millionaire Mullahs, stating that his wealth exceeded $1 billion. Rafsanjani was accused of the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires.
During the Mykonos trial in Germany, it was stated that he had a role in the assassination of Iran’s opposition activists as well. He was also accused by Iran’s hardliners and reformists of corruption, accumulation of wealth, and suppression of dissidents.
Rift with Khamenei
After death of Khomeini, Rafsanjani played a key role in making Ayatollah Ali Khamenei the next Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless after Khamenei created his own power base, empowered Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and sided with Ahmadinejad against Rafsanjani, disagreement and disputes between Rafsanjani and Khamenei rose often to the surface.
For example, in March 2016, Rafsanjani pointed out on Twitter that the “world of tomorrow is one of negotiations, not the world of missiles.” Khamenei reacted “Enemies continue strengthening their military and missile sectors. How can anyone say the era of missiles has passed?” Two of Rafsanjani’s five children were jailed for a short time by hardliners. Rafsanjani occasionally chose to withdraw in order to “avoid division” and preserve his interests.
However, It is believed that Khamenei kept Rafsanjani in political arena as a potential mediator for the nuclear agreement or negotiations with the West. In 2005 presidential elections, Rafsanjani ran against Mahmoud Ahmanidejad and lost the presidential race. He supported the green movement and the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009.
Finally, in 2013, the Guardian Council disqualified him from running for presidency. He called the decision “ignorant” and added “I don’t think the country could have been run worse, even if it had been planned in advance”. Later, he swung his considerable political weight behind Rowhani, supported him in the 2013 presidential elections and became a strong supporter of the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran.
Rafsanjani’s sudden death is viewed as tipping the domestic balance of power more in favor of the hardliners. “Chairman of the Expediency Council Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani left this world after he directed his efforts all his life towards advancing Iran’s revolution and Islam”. One of Iran’s state television channels wrote this message while carrying a black banner in a corner of screen.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist, is president of the International American Council. Harvard-educated, Dr. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org, @Dr_Rafizadeh.