Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was known as “the Shark,” died on Sunday of a heart attack. Rafsanjani, 82, was one of the pivotal symbols of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and served in major posts alongside its prime mover, Ruhollah Khomeini. After the Islamic regime took hold, he served as president from 1989 to 1997, chairman of the first Majlis (parliament), interior minister, head of the Expediency Council (a post he held until his death), and chairman of the Assembly of Experts. In 2005, he was decisively rebuffed when he lost the presidential elections to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2013, he tried to run again, but his candidacy was invalidated by the Guardian Council, a move that evoked amazement in Iran.
His death is a blow to the “reformist camp” that sought to maintain the Islamic regime while allowing more individual rights and conducting a more open foreign policy toward the West. Headed by the serving president, Hassan Rouhani, its situation is gloomy in any case. Rafsanjani had been one of its strong supporters, even if it was sometimes a cautious, behind-the-scenes support. The Leader of Iran, Khamenei, issued a statement of condolences. There will be three days of national mourning. Rafsanjani’s funeral will be held in Tehran on Tuesday, which has been declared a public holiday.
The death of the revolutionary and statesman Rafsanjani has left President Rouhani almost alone in the forefront of those seeking to bring about change both domestically and in the international arena. This has occurred precisely at a time of difficult challenges: the advent of the Trump administration, the effort to translate the partial lifting of sanctions into economic improvement, and the struggle against Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states over the reshaping of the Middle East, which still has not recovered from the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
Up to the day of his death, Rafsanjani was regarded both in the West and in Iran as “the good conservative.” He was seen as the one who could bring about a change from within, moving Iran closer to the West in general and to the United States in particular, and even extricating it from the grip of the repressive regime. Since the end of the Iran-Iraq War and throughout his years of political activity, he strove to contain and reduce the growing influence of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) as their political and economic power increased. He likewise tried, during and after his presidency – to the Revolutionary Guards’ consternation – to open the Iranian economy to the West and encouraging private businesses, which dubbed him “the capitalist” and considered him pro-American.
A Sworn Enemy of the Revolutionary Guard
For most of his political life Rafsanjani was viewed as the sworn enemy of the Revolutionary Guard and as the one who had urged Khomeini to stop the war against Iraq 1980-88. Article 150 of the Iranian constitution states that: “The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, organized in the early days of the triumph of the Revolution, is to be maintained so that it may continue in its role of guarding the Revolution and its achievements.” The Guards interpreted this article broadly, and throughout his career Rafsanjani attempted – without success – to check their growing influence in Iran’s politics, economy, and security institutions.
Rafsanjani was part of the Iranian Islamic system. He never sought to switch it; he wanted to blend in with it and advance his supporters who were not from the Revolutionary Guard. He was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Iran’s nuclear program and stated “the employment of even one atomic bomb inside Israel will wipe it off the face of the earth, but [such a bomb] would only do damage to the Islamic World. It is not unreasonable to consider this possibility.[i]”
After the June 2009 elections, which were forged in Ahmadinejad’s favor (as the Obama administration ignored the Green protest movement, which could perhaps have heralded a change in Iran), Rafsanjani threw his support behind the reform camp. In a Friday sermon (July 17, 2009), he even called to free the detainees, being prepared for a frontal clash with Khamenei and much of the top security echelon.
In the sermon, Rafsanjani lambasted the regime’s behavior in the wake of the elections and also criticized the Guardian Council for not managing to check the election results and iron out the difficulties with the religious establishment and the Iranian people. Rafsanjani emphasized the “seeds of doubt that were planted among the Iranian people” in the aftermath of the elections and added that “this doubt is a severe calamity that has befallen our people like a plague.” He declared that “there is no need to put people in jail…allow them to return to their families.” That was indeed his last Friday sermon. The huge impact of his words prompted Khamenei to make clear again, unequivocally, that he stood beside Ahmadinejad and the “victorious camp.” A short time later the protest movement flickered and then faded as it failed to gain support and attention from world leaders. Subsequently, amid the determination to sign the “historic” nuclear agreement, the ongoing human rights violations in Iran and remaining weak voices of protest continued to be totally ignored.
The cessation of Rafsanjani’s Friday sermons, which were seen in Iran as a means of mobilizing mass support, greatly weakened his public and political influence. He continued occasionally to issue statements on his website. Meanwhile, the rift between him and the top echelon of the regime, with Ahmadinejad at the forefront, deepened. Rafsanjani’s family members, including his daughter Faezeh Hashemi were arrested several times for taking part in the Green Movement protests and meeting with Bahai minority. They have been subjected to surveillance, threats, and pressures. His son Mehdi Hashemi was accused of taking a bribe and given a lengthy prison sentence in 2015.
Rafsanjani’s departure from the scene will help the Revolutionary Guards gradually complete their takeover of Iran and will further weaken the already waning reform camp and its supporters. Meanwhile the members of the first generation of the revolution – including those in the religious establishment – are being removed from key positions of power and replaced by the Revolutionary Guards and clerics affiliated with them. The changes that the Iranian people long for – economic well-being, freedom of expression, and human rights – will be harder to achieve in the absence of Rafsanjani, one of the last colorful and authentic symbols of the revolution.
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1 Khabar TV, December 14, 2000