The unexpected death of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani after a heart attack earlier this year closes a chapter in Iran’s tumultuous post-revolutionary history.
Endowed with impeccable revolutionary credentials, Rafsanjani, alongside current Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was the last remaining member of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini’s inner circle.
His death creates further distance from the heady days of the Iranian Revolution and prepares the ground for the emergence of new political leaders. Although a controversial and divisive figure in life, in death Rafsanjani has generated an odd sense of unity in Iran’s deeply fractured political landscape, if only in the short term.
The country’s establishment, which for the past eight years has consistently sidelined Rafsanjani, has posthumously embraced him as a revolutionary leader and a partisan of the late Ayatollah Khomeini as well as Ayatollah Khamenei.
For their part, the country’s reformists and allies of centrist President Hassan Rouhani have claimed Rafsanjani as their own and are apparently intent on posthumously elevating him to the status of a spiritual leader.
A shrewd politician with an outstanding ability to manipulate public opinion, even in death Rafsanjani continues to profit from the Iranian Revolution.
For nearly two decades, he rode the tiger of clerical supremacy in the Islamic Republic. As a highly influential speaker of the Iranian majlis (parliament) in the 1980s and later as commander of the armed forces during the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq War, Rafsanjani was widely recognised as the second most powerful man in the country during the turbulent decade of the 1980s.
His power and influence continued into the 1990s when he served two terms as president and was initially instrumental in consolidating the position of the new supreme leader Ali Khamenei who succeeded Khomeini in 1989.
The relationship between the two men formed the dialectic of power in the Islamic Republic. For a brief period in the early 1990s, Rafsanjani had the upper hand, with Khamenei and the bulk of Islamic Republic loyalists consigned to the role of opposition in Rafsanjani’s court.
The extent of his influence can be gleaned by the popular nickname of “Akbar Shah,” signifying that in the court of public opinion the wily cleric had acquired the aura, if not the power, of an Iranian monarch.
But this heyday was short-lived. Two developments brought Rafsanjani’s ascendancy to an end. First, the dialectic of power at the very top of the Islamic Republic had by the mid-1990s decisively and irreversibly swung in favour of Khamenei. Second, at a grassroots level the rise of reformists in the 1990s had eclipsed Rafsanjani’s technocratic approach to economic reform.
The reformists who rallied round former president Mohamed Khatami traced their political genealogy to the original left wing of the Islamic Republic.
Socialists by instinct and political persuasion, the reformists adopted the discourse of democracy as the most effective means of puncturing the conservative establishment’s hold over the country.
The emergence of the reformist movement as a centre of power in the Islamic Republic dramatically shifted the political battle lines from a relatively mild contest between technocrats and conservatives to a fierce ideological conflict between reformists (eslah talaban) and principlists (osoolgerayan). This conflict culminated in the post-election protests and riots of June 2009, which resulted in the definitive defeat of the reform movement both at street and political levels.
Contrary to their current opportunistic positioning, the reformists were originally fiercely opposed to Rafsanjani and used their position in the press in the late 1990s to assassinate his character by apportioning all manner of blame on the former president, ranging from mismanagement of the Iran-Iraq War to complicity in the murder of dissidents.
The reformist hatred of Rafsanjani was driven by widely divergent visions of economic reform. Rafsanjani’s neoliberal economic ethos extended to embracing the so-called Chinese model of reform, where economic liberalisation trumped political opening. By contrast, the reformists favoured a political and cultural breakthrough with a view to developing a more socialist economy.
The sight of Iranian establishment stalwarts led by Khamenei standing side by side with centrist and reformist figures next to Rafsanjani’s coffin at his funeral spoke to a momentary feeling of unity in the Islamic Republic.
It would be too cynical to dismiss the element of grief altogether: Rafsanjani was after all a foundational revolutionary figure who used his extraordinary talents to consolidate the newly established Islamic Republic in the 1980s. To that end, Rafsanjani established a strong bond with Khamenei stretching over several decades. His passing has been genuinely mourned at the highest reaches of the state.
Yet, there has been an unmistakable air of theatre and opportunism in the apparent alacrity of opposing factions in instrumentalising Rafsanjani’s funeral for their own political ends.
This opportunism in part reflects the political dexterity of the deceased himself, who prided himself on his intra-factional troubleshooting skills and in the post-2009 political climate tried to re-invent himself as a man of the people by aligning himself with the so-called Green Movement in Iran.
At the practical level, Rafsanjani’s demise may be interpreted as a psychological blow to Rouhani as he prepares to contest new presidential elections in four months’ time. But the effects will be neither deep, nor long-lasting, as before his death Rafsanjani had long lost real influence in the system.
As for Rafsanjani’s legacy, it appears that leading reformists and centrists in Iran are determined to transform him into an icon of reform and resistance.
This narrative is unlikely to take hold, however, not least because Rafsanjani was a not a reformist and his apparent turn toward the people was qualified and half-hearted at best.
In keeping with his balancing approach, Rafsanjani until the very end tried his hardest to stay on good terms with the establishment.
The writer is an analyst of Iranian politics and director of the research group Dysart Consulting.