In the West Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was widely regarded as a reformer. For many Iranians, he was the disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and the one who took responsibility for its crimes.
President of parliament since 1980, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Iranian armies in 1988 by Khomeini, and used his role to impose the ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq war which had lasted 8 years.
After the Ayatollah’s death in 1989, he was elected president of the Islamic Republic and remained in office until 1997. His program was then a mixture of openness and reforms – he pushed for rapprochement with the West, even with the “big Satan” – the USA.
He couldn’t run for another in 1997 so he threw his weight behind
another reformer, Mohammad Khatani, who remained in office until 2005.
Rafsanjani then devoted himself to the Expediency Council, a powerful body that adjudicates disputes over legislation, and held the post until his death.
He ran for the presidency again in 2005 and was popular among many young Iranians. Such support saw him win the first round but he was comfortably beaten in the second by the ultra-conservative mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It was the heaviest defeat in his career and signaled the demise of his political influence.
Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 didn’t sit well at all with Iran’s reformers. Several boycotted the ceremony, including Rafsanjani. Shortly afterwards the so-called “twitter revolution” sparked a wave of protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election; the government’s response was short and sharp. 150 people died and Iran is still reeling from the fall-out from the demonstrations.
For supporting the movement and openly criticising Ahmadinejad, especially vis-a-vis the West and sanctions imposed on the country, Rajsandjani, became a symbol for the reformers but lost his position as leader of the Assembly of Experts as hardline rivals called for his head.
Unable to stand in 2013 due to his age, Rafsanjani threw his weight behind the current president Hassan Rouhani and was rewarded with an advisory role.
His sudden death deprives moderates of their most influential supporter.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian president and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council was still a heavy weight in the Islamic Republic’s balance of power, despite being pushed by hardliners to de facto political isolation after the disputed presidential elections in 2009.
Euronews’ Maria Sarsalari spoke to Ahmad Salamatian, a poitical analyst and former Iranian MP to get more insight into the how the death of a key figure in Iran could impact everything from the upcoming presidential elections to foreign policy.
Sarsalari: The next presidential elections in Iran is scheduled for May 2017. It was already a very sensitive affair but how is Mr. Rafsanjani’s death going to influence it?
Salamatian: Mr. Rafsanjani himself has been one of the main supporters of Mr. Rouhani. Some viewed Mr. Rouhani as a kind of a younger Rafsanjani within the Islamic Republic. Therefore, we can say that the social support that has been there for Mr. Rafsanjani, is today fully behind Mr. Rouhani. Regarding public support for Mr. Rouhani in the upcoming elections, I consider Mr. Rafsanjani’s death an unfortunate event but void of negative consequences for Mr. Rouhani. I can even say that today there is a [political] consensus emerging which will further consolidate the social support for Mr. Rouhani.
Sarsalari: Mr. Rafsanjani played a large role in the way the Assembly of Experts elected Ali Khamenei to leadership in 1989. The two former friends had parted ways. You were an MP as at the same time as them just after the revolution. How will Mr. Rafsanjani’s death impact Ali Khamenei’s position?
Salamatian: Because of the rumours about Mr. Khamenei’s illness, everybody was waiting to see what role Mr. Rafsanjani would take in the possible absence of Mr. Khamenei. Fate meant for it to be the other way around. If the issue of Mr. Khamenei’s successor is debated during this term of the Assembly of Experts, the result, will mostly depend on the general balance of power between elected bodies, on the one hand, and security and military bodies on the other. It will also depend on the international tensions.
Sarsalari: While the upcoming presidency of Donald Trump has worried many about a change in the US’ approach towards Iran. Can Mr. Rafsanjani’s death make the prospects even more worrying?
Salamatian: The reality of the matter is that the absence of Mr. Rafsanjani in itself will push Mr. Khamenei into the frontline of the balancing scene of domestic and international forces. And he will be alone in this. It is quite possible that Mr. Khamenei may, in the future, assume the balancing role that Rafsanjani used to play when he (Rafsanjani) stood up against Khamenei’s more radical stance.