Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: Death of a political salesman

Published in GSN, 13 January 2017

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani unexpectedly died on 8 January in a Tehran hospital aged 82, following a heart attack. His funeral was held at Tehran University on 10 January, with prayers led by Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and media reports of “hundreds of thousands” of mourners. He was buried in the Imam Khomeini Mausoleum, in the south of the capital.

Western media quickly coalesced behind the idea that ‘reformists’ had lost an important support ahead of elections in May. Rafsanjani was undoubtedly a major political player, in formal office and behind the scenes, with a taste for business too. Corruption allegations have long swirled around the ultra-pragmatic Rafsanjani, whose wealth was notable even in a political system not known for its scruples.

Historically, his family were pistachio farmers but in the years since the 1979 revolution the Rafsanjani family’s business interests have grown to encompass the education, real estate, construction, automotive and aviation sectors; the pistachio trading concern has morphed into a substantial export business.

While his financial power was substantial, Rafsanjani’s political power has been on the wane in recent years. Even so, his death will be a cause for concern among a wide range of people, within Iran and outside. He had been a prominent advocate of moderation within the upper reaches of the Iranian establishment for many years and was expected to play an important role in the upcoming presidential election in May, as well as in the selection of the next rahbar.

Internationally, he was seen as a figure who could have helped to diffuse tensions with Iran’s neighbours and the wider world. Rafsanjani had good relations with some senior figures in Riyadh, including the late King Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz and despite the region’s sectarian cold war most Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) leaders sent their condolences on his death. They will miss the presence of an influential, reform-minded and pragmatic figure in Tehran as much as anyone.

From activist to president

Rafsanjani was born on 25 August 1934 near the city of Rafsanjan in Kerman Province,. The second of well-heeled pistachio farmer Mirza Ali Hashemi Bahramani and his wife Mahbibi Safarian Hashemi’s nine children, at 14 he left to study theology in the holy city of Qom. By the late 1950s he had joined the struggle against the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and over the course of the 1960s and 70s he was repeatedly jailed for his political activities by the Savak, the Shah’s secret police force.

Following Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s return to Iran in 1979, Rafsanjani was elected to the Majlis (parliament), where he held the post of speaker from 1980 to 1989. Towards the end of the eight-year war with Iraq he was made de facto commander in chief of the armed forces. His prominent positions provided a springboard for his first run at the presidency in 1989, which he won.

The start of his tenure as president, which lasted from 1989 to 1997, was characterised by the need to rebuild a country devastated by war. His two terms were notable for a series of pro-market reforms but also for crackdowns on dissident groups. The economic liberalisation programme prompted resentment over how much the commercial elite – which backed Rafsanjani – benefitted compared to the average citizen (GSN 643/17).

Corridors of power

After stepping down from the presidency, Rafsanjani held a string of other jobs in the highest echelons of the state, including chairman of the Majlis-e Khobregan (Assembly of Experts, which selects the next supreme leader) from 2007 until 2011, and chairman of the Expediency Council (which resolves disputes between the Majlis and the Guardian Council) from 1989 until his death.

However, he had struggled to maintain a hold on formal levels of power in recent years in the light of his support for reformists and a string of disagreements with the more conservative Khamenei (whose candidacy for supreme leader he promoted).

The corruption allegations that accompanied him contributed to his heavy defeat to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential race. Rafsanjani’s support for defeated candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi and the short-lived Green Movement, which followed Ahmadinejad’s second election victory in 2009, further cemented his status as a relative outcast, although he was not jailed as many other reformist leaders were.
He was disqualified from competing in the 2013 race by the Guardian Council on the basis of his age – he was 78 at the time (the council’s unelected head Ahmad Jannati was 86 – GSN 947 /1). In 2011, he had lost his position heading the Assembly of Experts and in March 2015 was defeated by prominent conservative cleric Mohammad Yazdi when he campaigned to lead the assembly again.

His family have at times been drawn into his disputes. In 2009, his daughter Faezeh Hashemi addressed Mousavi supporters and was briefly detained. In September 2012, she was imprisoned for six months for “spreading propaganda against the regime”.

Cases of graft

Her brother Mehdi Hashemi was arrested on his return to Iran from the UK for his support for reformist politicians (GSN 932/5). Mehdi has previously faced claims he was involved in bribes allegedly paid by France’s Total during his time as head of a state gas company (GSN 802/15) as well as alleged bribes from Norway’s Statoil (GSN 735/16).

Along the way there has been plenty of other scandal around Rafsanjani, including accusations that he was involved in the assassination of Iranian opposition activists in Europe and in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires. He himself survived an assassination attempt in 1979 by the Furqun group, who were opposed to clerical rule.

But through all the public knock-backs, humiliations and scandals, Rafsanjani had a knack for retaining influence; he was involved in most of the biggest decisions taken in the Islamic Republic’s short history, from accepting a UN-backed ceasefire to end the war with Iraq in 1988 to supporting the nuclear deal with the United States and other world powers that came into effect in January 2016.

His death comes at a time when reformists and conservatives have been engaged in an unusually public spat. President Hassan Rouhani and the head of the judiciary Sadeq Larijani have been trading allegations about each other’s alleged corruption through social media and other statements in recent weeks.

Analysts believe Rouhani’s position has been weakened by the death of his ally. The president is still expected to seek a second term at the election in May, although he has not yet officially announced his candidacy and the Guardian Council has repeatedly said it will not automatically approve him if he does decide to run. Conservatives on the other hand are likely to feel emboldened.

Perhaps more troubling for the regime in the longer term is that Rafsanjani’s passing is another sign that the revolutionary-era leaders are all fading away, to be replaced by more ordinary politicians. And while Rafsanjani may have sided with reformers in latter years, he was still able to bridge the gap to more conservative colleagues he had known for decades in a way that perhaps no-one else now can. Even so, Khamenei could not resist taking one last dig at his late colleague when his death was announced. The supreme leader issued a nuanced statement in which he extolled their long friendship, saying: “I do not know any other figure with whom I have had so many shared experiences for so long, on the turbulent path of this historic era”. But Khamenei also referred to Rafsanjani not as ayatollah but by the lesser rank of hojatolislam.