Analysis

Akbar Rafsanjani's Death a Blow to Iranian Reformists Ahead of Elections

Iranian President Hassan Rohani suffered a shocking blow with Rafsanjani’s death and he wasn't alone.

In this Aug. 4, 2013 file photo, Iranian President Hassan Rohani., right, and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, arrive for Rohani's swearing-in ceremony in Tehran, Iran.
Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily political survivor and multimillionaire mogul who remained among the ruling elite despite moderate views, died yesterday at 82.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who is preparing to run for reelection in another five months, suffered a shocking blow with Rafsanjani’s death. Not only Rohani. Rafsanjani’s death shakes up all the reformist streams that saw him as a spiritual leader and important political figure. The reformists hoped in the last election, in 2013, that Rafsanjani would be the leader who would represent them and provide them with real momentum after the turbulent and hostile rule of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

However, a political maneuver by the Guardian Council prevented him from competing, on the grounds that at 79 he was too old and that his health didn’t guarantee that he would be able to complete a presidential term.

Although the Iranian constitution does not have an age limit for president, the decision remained in force and the other reformist candidate dropped out of the race, so that Rohani was left as the default choice and the only candidate to succeed in garnering the trust of the reformists and get the nod from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

However, invalidating Rafsanjani’s candidacy did not keep him out of politics. Far from it. He continued to serve as chairman of the council most important to the interests of the nation, whose role is to set Iran’s foreign and domestic policy and to give a final stamp to laws passed by parliament.

Rafsanjani was also a member of the Council of Experts, which appoints supreme leaders. His serving on these two councils allowed the reformists to get their voice heard and to prevent the adoption of a radical policy that Rafsanjani claimed would damage Iran’s status.

The status of Rafsanjani – who twice served as Iranian president – rested on his closeness to the leader of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He also contributed to the election of Khamenei to succeed Khomeini as supreme leader. However, the closeness and friendship between the two ran aground on several occasions during Khamenei’s rule, reaching a nadir in the 2009 elections in which Rafsanjani ramped up his fight against Ahmadinejad, who was Khamanei’s patron.

Rafsanjani was one of Iran’s richest citizens, making his fortune from pistachio orchards. He implemented a policy of free trade, openness and encouraging human rights during his rule. He often clashed with radical leaders, who blamed him for assailing the values of the revolution with his values. His foreign policy – which fostered relations with all countries, including the United States – was perceived as “anti-revolutionary” and, as such, violating Khomeini’s legacy. However, his status and his wealth, which helped him elicit widespread public support, allowed him to skillfully navigate between his rivals and implement, to a great degree, his political strategy.

He also had his lows, failing to get elected into parliament in 2002 when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was president. At the same time, he supported Khatami’s initiative to negotiate with the United States on freezing Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions on Iran – an initiative President George W. Bush refused even to respond to. Eleven years later, Rafsanjani would be one of the most important supporters of the negotiations that Rohani held with the six world powers on the nuclear agreement, and stood alongside him against his political rivals (among them the Revolutionary Guards and radical movements).

Holding the religious title of ayatollah, Rafsanjani knew how to garner support and numerous friends among the moderate religious elites to help Rohani overcome his radical critics. Rafsanjani thus made himself vital, and perhaps the reformists’ most important political asset.

Rafsanjani was expected to promote Rohani’s upcoming reelection bid and to recruit support for him. Rohani, who is fighting reformist critics who say he broke his promises on human rights, freedom of expression and rebuilding the economy, needs robust, institutional and public backing – the kind Rafsanjani could have supplied.

Rafsanjani’s passing is great news for radicals who worked against him and caused the imprisonment of his son and daughter (a human rights activist), and to Khamanei, who saw Rafsanjani as a rival. Suffering from prostrate cancer, Khamanei hinted a year ago that it was time to think of a successor, but the last man he wanted to succeed him was Rafsanjani, who didn’t hide his intentions to run for the job. Now Khamanei can enjoy a period of relative quiet, and even if Rohani is reelected, he will be a weakened president who won’t be able to rely on Rafsanjani’s influence and power. (The Associated Press contributed to this report.)