Main Image Credit Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran (right), and Ali Akkbar Hashemi Rafsangani. The two had a falling out over reforms and elections. Courtesy of Khamenei.ir/Wikimedia.
The death of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani earlier this month casts a long shadow over Iranian politics and broader domestic developments. It is particularly significant in light of the looming presidential elections.
Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died earlier this month aged 82, was one of the most powerful figures and founding members of the Islamic Republic, filling a wide range of positions at the centre of the regime.
Right after the 1979 revolution, he was nominated speaker of Parliament, a position he held from July 1980 to August 1989. During that time, he also served as an intermediary between the Reagan administration and Tehran at the height of the Iran-Contra affair.
In 1988, Rafsanjani was appointed acting commander in chief of the Iranian military. He is widely credited with pressing for peace in Tehran by convincing the leadership to drink from the ‘poisoned chalice’ and accept the UN resolution for the ceasefire that ended the Iran–Iraq war after eight bitter years of fighting.
In 1989, he was elected as President of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s second most important post after Supreme Leader, and remained in power until 1997.
During his presidency, he attempted to improve ties with the international community, including main foes the US and Saudi Arabia, and aimed at advancing a policy focused on economic liberalisation and reform within Iran.
However, he was also often accused of pursuing these policies to increase his personal wealth and business empire – which included pistachios (Iran is the world’s top producer of the nuts) and the construction sectors –through corruption and nepotism.
Still, Rafsanjani continued to play a key role within Iranian institutions as representative of important universities, unelected government bodies and one of Tehran's Friday prayer leaders.
The fact that he remained, until his death, a man of the system is demonstrated by his role as head of Iran’s Expediency Council, an influential body that mediates between Parliament and the Guardian Council.
And, more poignantly, he was buried alongside the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in a shrine in south Tehran. Yet despite his ties with the establishment, many viewed the passing of the former Iranian president as a severe blow to the reformist movement, particularly in light of the looming Iranian presidential elections in May.
Since 2009, when he stood on the side of the demonstrators in the contested elections and openly clashed with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Rafsanjani has been considered a key figure in the moderate camp.
His endorsement and crucial role in gathering popular support for current President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 further strengthened his links with that front. President Rouhani’s courting of the West and the announcement of a nuclear deal also benefited from the open support offered by the like-minded Rafsanjani. He was perceived to be a key figure in helping to ensure the renewal of Rouhani’s mandate in the elections.
Given his strong links to the establishment and to different national stakeholders such as the business community and the senior clergy, Rafsanjani was thus perceived as uniquely positioned to help the survival of the reformist camp. At the same time, his past as a founding father of the republic helped to prevent polarisation of the Iranian political scene.
With Rafsanjani gone, Rouhani is now viewed as the only figure who could take on the role of ‘balancer’ within the Iranian system. Rouhani is viewed as close to the moderate camp (particularly in light of his past four years as president), but also heavily embedded in the system.
Among other things, he served as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for more than 16 years, appointed by and answerable to the Supreme Leader, and was also Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator during the first three years of the crisis.
Although he has the necessary tools to preserve the reformers while preventing the intensification of the internal political struggle, Rouhani is unlikely to be able to be mediator among factions while standing for president. He will be a de facto representative of the moderate front and will need to battle alone against the hardliners’ pressure.
This means, that in the short term, polarisation is the likely outcome of the leadership vacuum following Rafsanjani’s death. His funeral, during which more than 2 million people massed in central Tehran to pay tribute, was the second biggest of the Islamic Republic after Khomeini’s, and triggered the largest demonstration of dissent since 2009.
And for good reasons. The tensions that emerged on the day are just a glimpse of what might come next.
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies