After Rafsanjani

What the Ex-President's Death Means for Iran

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani at an Assembly of Experts meeting in Tehran, March 2011. Raheb Homavandi / Reuters

The death of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 marks a major turning point for Iran. For nearly 40 years, his undisguised hunger for power combined with his knack for deal making had made him the most proven kingmaker of the Islamic Republic.

In fact, without Rafsanjani, Iran’s two most important living political personalities—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani—might never have risen through the ranks. For his part, Rouhani, stayed loyal to Rafsanjani until the very end. Khamenei, however, parted ways with Rafsanjani many years ago, shortly after he became Supreme Leader. The two former friends became the severest of rivals, spearheading different portions of the nezam (political order) in the quest for preeminence. Theirs was not really an ideological difference, although Rafsanjani was thought of as a moderate and Khamenei as a hardliner. Rather, their dispute was always about power.

With Rafsanjani’s death, it is Rouhani who is best suited to fill the role of the elder of the so-called moderate camp. Only time can show whether the president, who is up for reelection in May 2017, has the grit to even want to fill Rafsanjani’s big shoes. Other candidates for the role, men such as former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, would never be given the political space to attempt it to begin with.  

Indeed, despite Rafsanjani’s controversial and mixed political record, he is leaving behind a vacuum. For good or bad, he had become the face of hope for moderation and gradual change in the Islamic Republic. His death can only deepen the factional struggle in Tehran.

Despite Rafsanjani’s controversial and mixed political record, he is leaving behind a vacuum.


For generations of Iranians, Rafsanjani’s beardless face had come to symbolize factionalism. His nickname, the Shark, was also a reflection of his canny ability to stay at the top political level. Politics was in his DNA but not in his family background.

Born in 1934 in a small town in

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