The death of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a veteran of 1979 Iranian revolution who later evolved into a reformist, has virtually left moderates in Iran orphaned and created a major political vacuum.
Rafsanjani, 82, with a political career spanning over half a century holding most top positions in the country’s political structure including parliamentary speaker, armed forces commander and two consecutive term president from 1989 to 1997, was a pragmatist who favoured a liberal political and economic policy.
He was a staunch supporter of 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. It included Iran shelving its nuclear programme in return for the removal of a range of economic and financial sanctions imposed on it. His demise will also be greatly felt in international politics as he was highly adept at rapprochement, particularly with Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring Arab countries.
The absence of Rafsanjani will also cost moderate and reformists dearly, as his backing and behind the scene negotiations always helped ease the political tensions with the conservatives and anti-western hardliners.
“Rafsanjani, with his pragmatist approach and far-reaching influence, played a balancing role to moderate extremist views of both reformists and conservatives. The absence of this moderating mediating role will be tangible and hugely felt in the future politics of Iran,” Iranian columnist Sadreddin Moosavi told Al Jazeera. He said that President Hassan Rouhani inherited his moderate foreign policies from Rafsanjani. “The nuclear deal owes its success to Rafsanjani as the key mentor,” Moosavi said.
His influence, unlike many politicians in Iran, did not end after he left office. The veteran leader continued to play a vital role in resolving political disputes between reformists and conservatives through his friendly ties with the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His death could increase rivalries in Iran’s unwieldy dual system of clerical and republican rule.
In 2005 he unsuccessfully contested the presidential election against hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2013 presidential election the reformists supported and endorsed his candidate, the unknown Hassan Rouhani, earning him the title of kingmaker in Iran’s politics. Rafsanjani’s death is a blow to moderates as he was the leading force behind Rouhani’s prospects of winning the election. Rouhani’s position has weakened of late, as many Iranians feel that he has not been able to improve the economy of the country despite the lifting of sanctions following the nuclear deal.
The top priority for reformists and moderates in the absence of Rafsanjani will be to focus on winning the next presidential election overwhelmingly. Reformists have no choice but to rally behind Rouhani, who is expected to seek re-election in May, to foil any attempt by hardliners who may be emboldened by Rafsanjani’s death.
Rafsanjani favoured progressive economic policies, encouraging private businesses and improving infrastructure. He also championed moderate causes such as the release of political prisoners and greater political freedoms for parties prepared to function within the country’s constitution.
His death raises concerns for reformers that the hardliners’ morale will get a boost in case the US president-elect Donald Trump adopts stringent, hostile policies towards Iran. In such a situation reformers’ attempts to build bridges with the US will be undermined as hardliners will favour a hostile policy towards Washington. Trump, who will be inaugurated as the 45th US president on January 20, during his election campaign had said that he would abandon the nuclear deal.
Rafsanjani was a companion of late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini. After Khomeini’s death, he played a key role in the selection of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the country’s supreme leader.
“Rafsanjani was a political fox long before assuming the office of the President and was keen to portray himself as a moderate leader, but that did not mean he was a moderate by international standards,” veteran columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed wrote in Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
At the time of his death, Rafsanjani chaired the Expediency Council, a political consultative body responsible for resolving disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, comprising hardline clerics and jurists. Former Parliament Speaker Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a moderate conservative, is speculated to replace Rafsanjani at the Expediency Council.
(M Shakeel Ahmed is former Editor, PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views expressed are personal.)