Rafsanjani Leaves Iran in Grip of Power Struggle

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 8 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. Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly