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.

THE SHARK 

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 central Iran, Rafsanjani came from a wealthy merchant family. He was a religious student in the holy city of Qom, where in the early 1960s, he became a follower of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the man who led the 1979 revolution against the secular and pro-American Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

At first, Rafsanjani made himself valuable to Khomeini by collecting donations for him inside Iran while Khomeini was first in exile in Iraq and later in France. Thanks to his loyalty, at the time of the revolution and quickly thereafter, Rafsanjani became one of Khomeini’s two most trusted advisors—the other being Ahmad Khomeini, Khomeini’s younger son. Such access was tantamount to power, and Rafsanjani exploited it to the fullest extent.

At first, Rafsanjani focused his power on becoming the speaker of the Iranian parliament, which he did, from 1980–89. On his watch, that seat became arguably the second most powerful position in the country. Among other things, Rafsanjani made sure that he was made personally responsible for managing the war effort against Iraq, which put him in the center of every major decision—from economic to foreign policy—throughout much of the 1980s. 

A few months before the death of the ailing Khomeini in June 1989, and with an eye toward stepping in as the unquestioned successor to the old man, Rafsanjani was a key player in orchestrating a last-minute process to make changes to the constitution. Khomeini’s close disciples knew full well that none of them had the charisma and political capital to succeed the elder Khomeini once he was dead. Instead, they hatched a plan to share power. Rafsanjani thought he had outsmarted all of his rivals by abolishing the office of the prime minister and, in turn, making the role of the presidency, which he believed he would assume, much stronger.

As per plan, Rafsanjani was formally elected president following Iran’s token elections. His old friend Ali Khamenei, who had occupied the presidency when the position was toothless and had been an accomplice in the constitutional repackaging of 1989, took over the role of the Supreme Leader. In Rafsanjani’s calculations, Khamenei was to be only a symbolic leader without the kinds of political powers that Khomeini had amassed for himself. His underestimation of Khamenei’s appetite for more than just symbolic religious leadership proved to be Rafsanjani’s most consequential mistake.

Rafsanjani wipes away tears as he speaks about former Hezbollah commander Imad Moughniyeh, shortly after the latter's death, Tehran, February 2008.
Morteza Nikoubazi / Reuters

FATAL CHOICE

At first, however, it worked. During his two terms as president, which lasted from 1989–97, it was Rafsanjani who was mostly in the headlines. He launched what was to become known as the “reconstruction era,” during which time the centralized war economy was to be once dismantled. When he opened up Iran’s oil and gas sectors for foreign investors in the early 1990s, Rafsanjani deliberately set aside a number of fields to be open only to American firms for bidding. He knew more than anyone else how dearly the Islamic Republic’s enmity toward the United States was costing the country in geopolitical and commercial terms. This period of economic liberalization was also the first time the Rafsanjani family became associated with corruption, a label the politician was never able to shake.

He was a merchant-turned-politician but one who throughout his career prized expediency over ideology. While he was no friend of the West as such, in power he quickly accepted the necessities of compromise if Iran wanted to rid itself of its pariah statue. That made it easy for his hardline critics, particularly in the later years, to paint him as an opportunist at best an agent of foreign powers at worst.

For generations of Iranians, Rafsanjani’s beardless face had come to symbolize factionalism.

All the while, Khamenei was quietly consolidating his power base. Most importantly, he brought all the military, security, and intelligence agencies under his control. By the mid-1990s, Iranian politics had become binary, with Khamenei emerging as the head doyen of the hardliners while Rafsanjani emerged as the godfather of a rival political network whose many members continue to serve in the highest echelon of power in Iran. Many of those who first served under Rafsanjani, including Rouhani, Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh, and many others from the present Iranian cabinet, remained close to the influential ayatollah.

Rafsanjani tried repeatedly to make political comebacks. In 2005, a presidential bid ended in a humiliating defeat at the hands of an unknown figure by the name of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The fact that the Office of the Supreme Leader had played an active role in assuring an Ahmadinejad victory made the loss that much more bitter.

In 2009, Rafsanjani backed Ahmadinejad’s challengers in an election that ended up producing the millions-strong Green Opposition Movement, which protested mass voter fraud. Rafsanjani’s open support for the Green Movement turned him into a prime target for the Khamenei camp, which viewed the protests as a threat to Khamenei’s tight grip on power.

In 2013, the once mighty Rafsanjani was again humiliated, this time by the Khamenei-controlled Guardian Council, a regime organ that has to approve all candidates. Rafsanjani was told he was too old to run. He strongly supported the 2015 nuclear deal and often mentioned that enmity with the United States was unsustainable. For his later years in politics, the security and intelligence establishment relentlessly pursued his family, on different occasions imprisoning his children. 

Despite all the obvious antagonism, Rafsanjani remained in the regime tent. He never openly attacked Khamenei, the man he had in 1989 naively helped make Supreme Leader. And he stopped trying to find his way back to power. Instead, he began to push forward his devotees. He felt vindicated, if not emboldened, when his long-time pupil, Hassan Rouhani, secured the presidency in 2013.

NO ANGEL

A prolific writer of memoirs, Rafsanjani was always much preoccupied with how history would remember him. He wanted to shape that narrative to the extent possible. As such, there is no doubt that his published memoirs have been highly selective in the revelations they have offered.

And yet, despite his best attempts, he was never able to whitewash his involvement in regards to some the worst atrocities of the Islamic Republic, including mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 or the Chain Murders of political dissidents in the 1990s.   

But what is known beyond doubt is that, in the course of his political career, Rafsanjani morphed from Islamist hardliner to someone that in the later years was regarded by Iran’s youthful reformist masses as a potential savior. If Rafsanjani had been so instrumental in imposing the repressive theocracy on the nation, he surely could undo it.

That was at least the idea. It never came to pass. Nor can those reformist hopefuls ever know for sure if that was really what Rafsanjani intended to do if he ever got to call the shots again. For now, the big question is whether the broad network that Rafsanjani leaves behind will stay together. His loyalists are found in many of Iran’s political institutions, in the economy, and in a good part of the media. 

What is also equally important is whether Rouhani will chose to pick up the mantle from his old mentor. In the Islamic Republic, it has always been the role of informal political networks that matter the most in shaping outcomes. The country’s official political parties are not much more than vehicles for mobilization (if not a ruse altogether). For that reason alone, Rouhani’s next steps could prove decisive not only in preserving the Rafsanjani clique as an alternative to the hardliners but also in steering the trajectory of the Islamic Republic.

  • ALEX VATANKA is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. He is presently working on his second book, “The Making of Iranian Foreign Policy: Contested Ideology, Personal Rivalries and the Domestic Struggle to Define Iran’s Place in the World.” Follow him at @AlexVatanka
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