The death of Iran’s second most powerful figure sends shockwaves through the country’s political system | The World Weekly
Tens of thousands of mourners braved the cold weather in Tehran on Tuesday to say their last goodbyes to Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has died after suffering a heart attack at the age of 82. For many, the passing away of one of post-revolutionary Iran’s most influential leaders was a time for reflection. But Mr. Rafsanjani remained a powerful figure in old age, and his death is worrying news for the country’s reformists, including President Hassan Rouhani.
The front pages of Iranian newspapers were filled with portraits of a man who was a close confidante of the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Nicknamed ‘kuseh’, a Farsi term meaning both beardless and shark, Mr. Rafsanjani was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in the country and a “pillar” of the revolution which toppled Western-allied Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1979.
“The demise of Ayatollah Rafsanjani was a big shock to Iranian society,” Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian journalist and FCO Chevening Iran Scholar, told The World Weekly.
Until his death Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani headed the Expediency Council, a body tasked with mediating disputes between the legislature and the Guardian Council, a watchdog which vets election candidates and is dominated by hardliners. Throughout his career he served in many senior posts, including the presidency, and pushed for the Islamic republic to open up to the West. Mr. Ziabari said that without Mr. Rafsanjani’s “backing and sponsorship” the nuclear deal between Iran and leading western powers “could not have been sealed”.
Mr. Rafsanjani also enabled the political careers of moderates such as Mohammad Khatami, who succeeded him as president in 1997, and Mr. Rouhani. And, despite increasing hostility between Iran and regional rival Saudi Arabia, he maintained cordial ties with the leadership in Riyadh.
Many observers have portrayed a decades-long love-hate relationship with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for whom Mr. Rafsanjani helped secure the supreme leadership when Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989. Mr. Khamenei led the funeral prayers, which were attended by a wide spectrum of the country’s political and military elite, including President Rouhani. “It is with deep regret and sorrow that I have received the news of the passing away of an old friend, a comrade and companion during the struggles of the Islamic movement,” the supreme leader said.
Despite the outpouring of grief and show of unity among warring factions, Mr. Rafsanjani was a controversial figure. Born into a wealthy pistachio farming family and one of the richest men in the country, the late ayatollah was seen by some segments of Iranian society to be part of a venal elite which had no interest in social inequality. Iran watchers described him as a wily political operator, who was reportedly responsible for brutality against Iranian dissidents. Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Mr. Rafsanjani’s human rights record was “by no means positive”.
How will Rafsanjani’s death influence the presidential election in May 2017?
Mr. Rafsanjani’s passing comes at a crucial time, only months before a presidential election in May in which Hassan Rouhani is seeking a second term. The fact that he now won’t receive the late ayatollah’s approval means he “may have a tougher time getting re-elected”, said Ghoncheh Tazmini, from the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS.
Hardliners, who are opposed to President Rouhani’s camp and rapprochement with the West, stand to benefit, but Dr. Tazmini warned not to overstate the impact of Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s death. “Rafsanjani's passing will not determine Rouhani's re-election,” she told TWW.
Yet President Rouhani’s path ahead will not be easy. Conservatives and hardliners have criticised him for a lack of economic progress since the 2015 nuclear deal, and he is also involved in a public spat with members of Iran’s powerful judiciary, with both sides accusing the other of corruption.
Nevertheless, the president could count on a “strong impetus for change 'from below’”, Dr. Tazmini said. Seyed Ali Alavi, another Iran researcher at SOAS, identified a silver lining for the president, telling TWW that “Ayatollah Rafsanjani's death may politically weaken President Rouhani, but morally it can strengthen his election campaign”.
In a sign of how divided Iran’s political system remains, supporters of the reformist Green Movement used the public gathering for Mr. Rafsanjani’s funeral to call for the lifting of house arrest orders on its two leaders. Mr. Alavi said the funeral “demonstrated that reformists still enjoy considerable public support”.
The Green Movement, supported by Mr. Rafsanjani, was spawned by reports of the manipulation of the 2009 election, which saw the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected. The widespread protests which ensued were brutally suppressed by state authorities.
Months of political squabbles lie ahead.