Will Rafsanjani’s death trigger Iran regime upheaval?
Death of former president is likely to leave a power vacuum less than four months prior to presidential elections, writes Heshmat Alavi
The Iranian regime was dealt a significant blow as former president and senior cleric Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died of a heart attack on Sunday, January 8, at the age of 82.
Known for his influential role in shaping the regime’s politics following the 1979 revolution, Rafsanjani will leave a power vacuum in his wake as he dies less than four months prior to crucial presidential elections.
During the past 38 years Rafsanjani maintained a top role in the regime’s measures of domestic crackdown, export of terrorism and extremism abroad, and pioneering Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons through a clandestine program.
“The death of Rafsanjani, one of the pillars of the religious fascism ruling Iran and its balance factor collapsed, and the regime in its entirety is closer now to its overthrow,” said Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, President of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
Following the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, during which he served as Parliament Speaker and deputy commander of armed forces, Rafsanjani became president from 1989 to 1997. After eight years of the so-called “reformist” Mohammad Khatami’s presidency, Rafsanjani tried to run for office again in 2005, but fell short to firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
More recently Rafsanjani has been known for his fierce rivalry with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and mentoring the so-called “moderate” Iranian President Hassan Rowhani.
There is no doubt Rafsanjani was part and parcel to the religious establishment in Iran, especially considering his close ties to the regime founder Ruhollah Khomeini, who died in 1989. However, the pro-appeasement camp in the West believed him to be a “pragmatic conservative” willing to mend fences with the outside world, especially the US.
The Expediency Council
While Rafsanjani’s power had waned considerably in recent years, his last post was head of the Expediency Council, a body assigned to apparently resolve conflicts between the regime’s parliament (Majlis) and the Guardian Council. The latter is an ultra-conservative entity with close links to Khamenei, known mainly for vetting all candidates based on their loyalty to the establishment before any so-called elections.
Rafsanjani again sought to participate in the 2013 elections as a “reformist” candidate, only to be disqualified by the Guardian Council. Angered at being spurned, Rafsanjani responded by denouncing the measure as ignorant.
In line with his jockeying with the regime’s Supreme Leader, Rafsanjani decided to place his weight behind Rowhani after the latter assumed power as president in 2013.
Parallel to his political endeavors, Rafsanjani also used his position to carve himself and his family an economic empire from the country’s institutions and natural resources in the past decades.
The family empire
“One brother headed the country’s largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin runs an outfit that dominates Iran’s $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani’s sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son heads the Tehran Metro construction project (an estimated $700 million spent so far),” states a 2003 Forbes analysis.
The report also alludes to the billions cached in Swiss and Luxembourg bank accounts by the Rafsanjanis. Despite portraying himself as an adequate broker to the West, Rafsanjani was on par with his “hardline” counterparts in suppressing dissidents, namely members and supporters of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), the main opposition group that first blew the whistle on Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.
“Four rulings are a must for the [PMOI]: 1- Be killed. 2- Be hanged. 3- Arms and legs be amputated. 4- Be separated from society,” Rafsanjani said back in 1981. He also played a presiding role in the 1988 massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners.
During his tenure as president, Rafsanjani is said to have directed numerous assassinations of dissidents abroad, including renowned human rights advocated Dr. Kazem Rajavi, former Iranian ambassador to Italy Mohammad Hossein Naghdi and Iranian Kurdish leader Abdulrahman Ghassemlou.
Rafsanjani has also been indicted for his role in the 1994 AMIA bombing in Buenos Aires that left 85 killed and hundreds wounded.
Rafsanjani has through four decades of mullahs’ rule in Iran played the role of the regime’s No. 2 figure and a balancing element, always securing the regime’s higher interests. His death will significantly weaken the mullahs’ regime in its entirety and will trigger major upheavals across the regime’s hierarchy.
If past is any indication, the mullahs will most likely resort to further violence and the export of terrorism and extremism to prevent this newest crisis from spiraling out of control.
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Heshmat Alavi is a political and rights activist. His writing focuses on Iran, ranging from human rights violations, social crackdown, the regime's support for terrorism and meddling in foreign countries, and the controversial nuclear program. He tweets at @HeshmatAlavi & blogs at IranCommentary
Disclaimer - This author is writing under a pseudonym to protect his identity.