Rafsanjani leaves Iran in grip of power struggle

Iran’s factionalised political system goes on but with Rafsan­jani’s death Islamic Republic has lost its canniest defender.

A March 2011 file picture shows former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attending Iran’s Assembly of Experts biannual meeting in Tehran. (Reuters)

2017/01/15 Issue: 89 Page: 17

The Arab Weekly
Gareth Smyth

Beirut - The day after Akbar Hashe­mi Rafsanjani lost the run-off presidential ballot in 2005, he arrived early for work at the Expedi­ency Council, the state body he led.

Rafsanjani knew politics had ups and downs and he was a great sur­vivor. His death — due to heart com­plications on January 8th at the age of 82 — leaves Iranians struggling to imagine their country without him and marks an important transition from the ageing generation that led the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Rafsanjani has been at the core of political power in Iran since then.

He was a close confidante of the revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He became parliamentary speaker, war com­mander towards the end of the 1980-88 war with Iraq and then president for two terms in 1989-97.

From 1983 until his death, he sat on the Experts Assembly, the cleri­cal body that selects Iran’s supreme leader.

Rafsanjani was crucial in per­suading Khomeini in October 1988 to end the devastating war with Iraq in which an estimated 1 million people on both sides were killed.

It was a decision that Khomeini called “more deadly than drinking from a poisoned chalice”.

In 1989, Rafsanjani orchestrated Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s succes­sion as leader and was central in both the country’s post-war devel­opment and an uneven thaw in re­lations with the United States and Europe.

Yet Rafsanjani, known in Iran as kuseh — “the shark” — remained mysterious.

Even his name was oblique. He became “Rafsanjani” during the struggle against the shah — when he was jailed several times — after the city, Rafsanjan, nearest to the village, Bahraman, where he grew up before starting clerical studies in Qom aged 14.

His given name Akbar sometimes became Ali Akbar, still wrongly used by some international media.

Mystery gave him aura, which could work in his favour. People went to Rafsanjani — including Westerners in the 1980s seeking the release of hostages held by Leba­nese Shia militants — to get things done.

As late as 2005, Western diplo­mats and news publications covet­ed Rafsanjani, seeking respectively meaningful talks over Iran’s devel­oping nuclear programme or just an interview. For the latter, Rafsan­jani’s aides insisted on positive cov­erage and were not short of takers.

Rafsanjani felt the nationalism common among Iranians, even rev­olutionaries, and published a book in 1968 lauding Amir Kabir, the 19th-century Qajar minister who was ruthless in politics while a re­former and educationalist.

In Tehran, the Arman-e Emruz newspaper mourned “the death of the contemporary Amir Kabir”.

Pragmatism is double-edged. During Iran-Contra, when in 1985- 87 Tehran sought US weapons to fight Iraq, many feared contact with the “Great Satan” would pollute the revolution’s ideals.

In the West, some balked at Raf­sanjani’s citing by Argentinean prosecutors for the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires and by German prosecutors over assassinations of Iranian opposi­tion figures in Europe.

Reports of Rafsanjani’s growing wealth grew more fantastic as Iran in the 1990s see-sawed between high growth and downturns — an ideal environment for speculators.

Iranians in shared taxis fed the myths, detecting Rafsanjani’s hand everywhere. Forbes magazine in 2003 put his wealth at more than $1 billion and the New York Times’ obituary alleged he “exercised a near monopoly on the lucrative pis­tachio trade”.

Certainly, associates and family — including his son Mehdi, impris­oned in 2015 on corruption charg­es — undertook complex business dealings, including in real estate, that drew fire from fundamentalists during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005).

As an establishment pillar, Raf­sanjani kept aloof from the re­formists but he was still targeted by fundamentalists, especially as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to win the 2005 presidential election by denouncing the wealthy few — a message so skilfully targeting Raf­sanjani that it needed no spelling out.

Defeat to Ahmadinejad curbed Rafsanjani’s influence, although the lure of his brand of pragmatism increased for many in the political class, including Khamenei, once the reformist danger was routed, first by Ahmadinejad in 2005 and then by riot police during the 2009 protests against Ahmadinejad’s fiercely disputed re-election.

The reformists’ demise helped facilitate an act Amir Kabir would have lauded, the 2015 nuclear agreement with US-led world pow­ers.

By 2013, with US President Barack Obama pledged to engage Iran, Rafsanjani was barred from Iran’s presidential election on dubious grounds of age but backed Hassan Rohani, a long-time ally and once his deputy as war commander.

Rohani’s victory led to the 2015 deal limiting the nuclear pro­gramme and easing sanctions.

In the 2016 Experts Assembly election, Rafsanjani topped the Tehran constituency with 2.3 mil­lion votes (51%), confirming his continuing popularity in the capi­tal.

Iran’s political class expected him to play some role in the develop­ing intrigue over the succession to Khamenei, who is nearly 78.

That expectation is now dashed. A new generation of leaders — in­cluding Rohani, aged 68; judici­ary chief Sadegh Larijani, 55; head of the Imam Reza shrine Ebrahim Raeisi, 56; and Mahmoud Hashe­mi Shahroudi, 68, second deputy chairman of the Experts Assembly — will shape the Islamic Republic’s future.

This hinges on its ability to man­age both internal differences and its relations with the outside world.

Iran’s factionalised political system goes on but with Rafsan­jani’s death the Islamic Republic he helped to shape has lost its canniest defender.

Gareth Smyth has covered Middle Eastern affairs for 20 years and was chief correspondent for The Financial Times in Iran.

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