What does the death of Rafsanjani mean for Iran’s political landscape?
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attends Iran's Assembly of Experts' biannual meeting in Tehran March 8, 2011. Rafsanjani lost his position on Tuesday as head of an important state clerical body after hardliners criticised him for being too close to the reformist opposition. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi (IRAN - Tags: POLITICS)
Iran’s former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, died on January 8. (Reuters/Raheb Homavandi)

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the pragmatic centrist former president of Iran, who died Jan. 8 after a heart attack, was one of the pillars of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

Before the death of the leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1988, Rafsanjani was arguably the second-most powerful man in Iran.  

Until the end of his life, he remained one of the most influential political figures and in the last few years, the outspoken, spiritual leader of the moderates’ camp, who constantly and publicly adopted fierce positions against the hardline current.

Rafsanjani played the key role in Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s ascent to Supreme Leader in 1989. However, differences between the two emerged when Rafsanjani’s eight-year presidency began. At the heart of their differences was relations with the United States. The Leader categorically rejected diplomacy with Washington, while Rafsanjani viewed such an approach as unsustainable.

It was in that context that when no one dared to talk about reconciliation with the US, Rafsanjani wrote a letter to the leader of the Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and warned him that “the style that we have adopted now – not to talk or have any relations with America – is not sustainable.”

Khamenei was elected as Iran’s second supreme leader against even his own expectations. After the election,  Khamenei said:

“I always considered my level [of qualifications] too low for this highly significant and crucial post, but also even much lower posts like the presidency and other posts, which I have held since the revolution.”

It is likely that this mentality resulted in Khamenei concluding that he was not in a position to risk his highly “crucial post” by abandoning his mentor’s heritage of the characterization of the United States as the Great Satan. In other words, Khamenei perceived that the state of enmity with the U.S. had to be woven into the fabric of the revolution, and that the nezam (political system) had to stay revolutionary and thus that hostilities had to be perpetuated.

Rafsanjani was also a staunch and open advocate of the free-market. But his economic liberalization policies during his presidency led to skyrocketing inflation and prompted riots in a number of Iranian cities. His presidential record with respect to freedom of speech and human rights was no better. His popularity plunged to the point that in the 2000 parliamentary elections, he secured the 30th and last seat of Tehran. To save face he withdrew. 

With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as president in 2005, Rafsanjani was pushed to the margins even further. Accusations and attacks were aimed daily at him in the media, which supported Ahmadinejad. Indeed, Ahmadinejad, a Machiavellian who lacked any identity in Iran’s politics and had no presentable political vision, identified himself as the antithesis to Rafsanjani, whom he called corrupt and in favor of aristocracy.

In 2009, however, Rafsanjani rose like a phoenix from the ashes. While never a reformist, he attempted to capitalize on the dissident movement following the upheavals in support of the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi and against the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad, vehemently supporting the protestors in hopes of a comeback. Rafsanjani’s support of the protestors resulted in a surge of popularity among the middle-class urbanites who form a significant political force in Iran.

This period also marked the beginning of Rafsanjani’s open confrontations with Iran’s leader. During the 2009 uprisings, Ayatollah Khamenei went public with his differences with Rafsanjani. In a lengthy Friday prayer sermon, Iran’s leader acknowledged several “differences in points of view” with Rafsanjani and supported his arch enemy, Ahmadinejad.

Political figures who had backed the “sedition” – the name conservatives chose to identify the 2009 upheavals – were either jailed or lost their positions. Rafsanjani was the only one who remained unharmed.

Despite the fact that Rafsanjani and Khamenei were publicly at odds since 2009, Khamenei avoided dismissing him from the establishment. In a glaring example,  Khamenei reappointed Rafsanjani as the chair of the Expediency Council, a body that is supposed to adjudicate disputes within the government, in 2012 for another five years.

Rafsanjani was simply too big to be dismissed. He was a leading figure of the old guard of the Revolution. His dismissal would raise serious questions and suspicions about the stability of the system. Meanwhile, since 2009, not only the moderates but also the grassroots supporters of the reform movement gathered behind him.

Last February in elections for the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani won over 2.3 million votes, which exceeded any other candidates that ran for either Iran’s parliament or the Assembly, a body tasked with the supervision and election of Iran’s supreme leader.

Rafsanjani, whether as a result of a deep mental transformation or out of expediency to safeguard his position against hardline opponents, sought more freedom for the Iranian people and advocated a liberal reading of Islam in his later years. He argued that “without people, even a godly government will not sustain and will not get anywhere.” 

Rafsanjani’s death is particularly significant in four areas.

First, in the short term, it could positively affect the outcome of the May 2017 presidential elections for the moderates. Rouhani’s camp can use Rafsanjani’s death to trigger people’s emotions, portray his absence as a dangerous opportunity for a hardliner comeback, and thus secure another landslide victory.  In the 2013 elections, Rafsanjani’s endorsement was crucial to the victory of Rouhani, who then a lesser known political figure.

Second, in the long term, moderates/reformists have lost an influential voice in the establishment. This has the potential to create an opportunity for the hardliners – particularly the Revolutionary Guards, the judiciary, and the Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elected office – to impose pressure on their moderate rivals facing significantly less resistance. While Rafsanjani was not in a position to stop the hardliners, his popularity, in addition to being a prominent Old Guard, could not be ignored by the hardliners.

Third, although like-minded Rafsanjani candidates could not gain control of the Assembly of Experts in the February 2016 elections, Rafsanjani could have shaped a faction to influence the election of the next leader and the trajectory of the country if Khamenei were to die during the Assembly’s next eight-year term.

To assume the position of the new leader, one must secure the votes of two-thirds of the clerical body. By having the votes of 30 of 88 members, the moderates, led by Rafsanjani, could obstruct their rivals’ votes. While Rouhani is also a member of the Assembly and a follower of Rafsanjani, he does not have the stature that Rafsanjani had among the clerics. As such, it is less likely that he can form such a faction.

Fourth, the person who must carry the torch of moderation within the establishment  (considering that former president Mohammad Khatami is completely muted and will remain so in the foreseeable future) is none other than Rouhani. This is true because all the reformists have been tarred as “seditionists.”

The good news is that Rouhani, 68, is not too old. The bad news is that if for any reason he disappears from the Iranian political stage, there would be no one to fill the gap and the moderate current would be left rudderless.

Shahir Shahidsaless is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst and freelance journalist writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East, and the US foreign policy in the region. He is the co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He is a contributor to several websites with focus on the Middle East as well as the Huffington Post. He also regularly writes for BBC Persian. He tweets @SShahisaless