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Hojjatoleslam Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Iranian state television announced the death of former president and leading reformer Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, 82 and suffering from heart ailments, died 08 January 2017 at a hospital north of Tehran. "Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani was taken to hospital after heart attack and more than an hour long efforts by doctors to revive him were not successful," the deputy minister of health was quoted by Fars news agency as saying. State television interrupted programming to announce the death, saying it came "after a life full of restless efforts in the path of Islam and revolution."

Rafsanjani was an influential figure in Iran, and headed the Expediency Council, a body which is intended to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. He was also a member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader, Iran's most powerful figure.

Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, was earlier seen as a top adviser to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Analysts said he also played a key role in choosing Khomeini's successor, after the founder's death in 1989. Rafsanjani's presidency saw the country seeking to rebuild its economy from the ruinous 1980-1988 war with neighboring Iraq. It was also marked by a series of cautious reforms which saw wider freedoms emerge, particularly in the country's tightly controlled media.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was responsible for Khamenei’s ascension to the position of Supreme Leader in 1989. Rafsanjani was perceived as enormously wealthy and corrupt. There have been many stories about Rafsanjani being a man of great wealth, but he had always denied them.

Hashemi Rafsanjani was born in 1934 to a family of pistachio farmers. He studied theology at a seminary in the city of Qom.

Hashemi Rafsanjani's involvement with politics dates to the early 1960s, when he began his association with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. After the 1979 Revolution, this relationship and Hashemi Rafsanjani's political skills led to him becoming one of the country's most powerful figures. He served as speaker of parliament from 1980-89.

Hojjatoleslam Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani served two terms as Iran's president from 1989 to 1997. Rafsanjani's terms as president saw some socioeconomic liberalization and appointments of technocrats. His two-term presidency brought some modest social and economic reforms. He was also credited with spurring Iran's reconstruction following the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The reforms were not enough to attract extensive foreign investment. Rafsanjani also failed to capitalize on feelers from Washington exploring the possibility of talks to reduce Iran-US tensions. Rafsanjani allowed his Ministry of Intelligence free rein for crackdowns on domestic political activists. By the time Rafsanjani left office, EU states had withdrawn all their ambassadors from Iran due to evidence Tehran ordered the assassination of Iranian opposition figures in Germany. In his time as Majlis speaker in the 1980s, Rafsanjani had been one of many to call for the reinstatement of members of the Shah's hated intelligence service SAVAK into the successor organization SAVAMA, to help the regime eliminate domestic opposition.

The former President went on to head Iran's top political arbitration body, the Expediency Council. The Expediency Council was tasked with adjudicating in legislative disputes between the parliament and the Guardians Council, and also advised the Supreme Leader. The council was also involved with constitutional revisions. As chairman of the Council, Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of the country's most powerful individuals. He was also deputy chairman of the Assembly of Experts, the body that elects Iran's Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani also became a member of the Supreme National Security Council, and continued through 2008 to be one of Iran's most ubiquitous figures.

Rafsanjani was considered possibly only second to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in influence in Iran. Hashemi Rafsanjani was seen as a veteran politician with lots of influence on Iran's political scene. He was very influential informally, too, through the patron-client relationships and personal networks that resulted from his lengthy involvement in politics, through his extended family, and through his clerical ties. This personal standing and connections have allowed Rafsanjani to also have an international role, including his work in attempting to repair differences between Muqtada Sadr and the Iranian-supported Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

Rafsanjani, though initially a major conservative politician, became increasingly more pragmatic and moderate as he continued his involvement in Iran's political structure. During the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97), reformists controlled a majority of seats in parliament until 1992 and supported Rafsanjani's policies for economic reform and the normalization of relations with neighboring countries. The conservatives won a majority of seats in both the 1992 and 1996 parliamentary elections and subsequently used their position in the legislature to weaken or stop outright many reforms proposed by the Rafsanjani government.

In the 2005 Iranian presidental election he branded himself as the only one of the eight candidates with the stature to deliver on his campaign promises. He said he wanted to integrate Iran into the global economy. He was also probably the person in best position to deliver some kind of deal on the nuclear program. With the failure of his 2005 campaign and accusations of campaign fraud and harassment, Rafsanjani entered into an alliance with reformist politicians and other moderates. This policial block scored a major victory in the 2006 municipal elections against the ultra-conversative supporters of the winner of the 2005 election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

European governments had backed Mostafa Moin, an ally of outgoing President Mohammad Khatami, and pinned their hope on "pragmatic" Rafsanjani in the second round of voting. The hardliner domination of politics in Tehran threw the European Union policy of "constructive engagement" with Iran into disarray. Engaging Iran in the hope of promoting moderates came to naught.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was a figure whom both certain Reformists and Conservatives wanted to join the 2013 presidential race. He was the most well-known politician in Iran after the late founder of the Islamic Republic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his successor Ayatollah Khamenei. Rafsanjani served as Majlis Speaker for two consecutive terms before becoming a two-term president.

Chairing the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani was an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s policies. His proponents believe that the 77-year-old veteran politician is the only one capable of leading the country out of the present circumstances. His critics say he is not physically capable for presidency and his return would mean political reactionism.

Rafsanjani’s behavior in the past had shown that he is completely unpredictable and he may decide to run for president in the last minute. Moreover, he was not afraid of defeat. He ran in 2005 and lost to Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani conceded defeat at the time although some analysts believe that without his candidacy, Ahmadinejad would not have managed to polarize the election and win over slum dwellers and villagers to reach victory.

In 1989, Rafsanjani underscored the need to obtain an atomic arsenal, stressing that "Iran cannot overlook the reality of nuclear strength in the modern world." Nuclear arms, in the Tehran mullahs’ view, are "the most important strategic guarantee" of their survival. In 1991, Ayatollah Mohajerani, one of Rafsanjani’s deputies, clarified the need to obtain nuclear weapons. "Since the enemy has nuclear facilities," he said, "Islamic countries must be armed with the same capacity."

Few would be as well equipped to draw a succinct portrait of the politically chameleonic qualities of Hashemi The Shark as Prof. Syed Mohammad Marandi, dean of the Faculty of World Studies at Tehran University. Marandi notes, "He was an extraordinary smart person, who was also a political genius. His alliances easily shifted, since he saw himself as a centrist. In the late 1980s and 1990s the leftists (later reformists) hated him and claimed that he was pro-American and a liberal capitalist who crushed the poor. At that time he was close to the conservatives (later principalists), but the leftists (later reformists) couldn't hurt him especially in the 1980s when he was very popular."

Confused? Well, that's Iran's complex/convoluted politics in a nutshell; nothing can be understood if one does not apprehend the nuances between principalists (those faithful to the radical precepts of the revolution) and reformists (some now within the current Rouhani administration, some silenced for good). Even after his own presidency, Rafsanjani remained in the spotlight. He vigorously supported suave reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 presidential elections. Khatami won hands down and proposed a "dialogue of civilizations" to include the US but that was predictably spurned by Washington.

Marandi on the late 1990s: "When Khatami came to power (and suddenly jumped from a form of Islamic Revolutionary Socialism to Liberal Capitalism), Khatami's people led a smear campaign claiming that Rafsanjani was the root of all evil.. As a result Rafsanjani was crushed in the sixth parliamentary elections along with his conservative (later principalist) allies."

By 2002, Rafsanjani's political fortunes had plummeted, as conservatives mounted and sustained criticism of his reformist outreach efforts toward the West. He lost a post-presidential bid that year for a seat in parliament, and in 2005 was soundly defeated in a bid for a second presidential term by conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Four years later, at the height of a massive government crackdown on demonstrators protesting presidential election results, he delivered a speech calling for greater personal freedoms. Analysts and pundits say that 2009 address further alienated him from conservatives and military commanders.

Rafsanjani was denied a third attempt at the presidency in 2013 when Iran's all-powerful Guardian Council barred him from the ballot, a disqualification widely seen as an official rebuke of his reformist efforts. However, his political protege, Hassan Rouhani, won the presidency and assigned Rafsanjani to oversee planning for direct nuclear talks with the United States. He also headed Iran's Expediency Discernment Council, an administrative body that advises Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Then came the Ahmadinejad earthquake – in 2005. Rafsanjani, once again running, led the first round; but lost the second round to the hardcore populism of Ahmadinejad. The world remembers, with trepidation, that during the second part of the 2000s Washington, under Bush 2, was always a click away from "nuking Iran".

Marandi explains how Ahmadinejad won" "When Ahmadinejad came along calling for social justice, the former left and Rafsanjani and his people were all crushed, while the principalists largely supported him. Ahmadinejad again crushed Mousavi (Rafsanjani's man) in the next elections, but principalists gradually moved away from him (because of his provocative and divisive language, impulsive decisions). And when the sanctions hit, he was politically isolated." Still Hashemi The Shark was far from politically dead" "Principalists were divided, so Rafsanjani brilliantly created a coalition of his people, reformists, and a faction within the principalists and brought Rouhani to power."

So in a nutshell, since the late 2000s Rafsanjani had been the de facto top articulator in and around the reformists, as well as other factions marginalized in the political area. He was the certified bête noire of the principalists. And that could not but pit him, occasionally, against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei himself.

Then came the election of Hassan Rouhani – once again a Rafsanjani protégé — in 2013; the road map was finally clear for some sort of détente with Washington, crystallized in the complex nuclear negotiations that led to the UN-approved Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Marandi notes how "after the JCPOA Rafsanjani was at the height of his popularity once again. In recent months with the economy stagnating and the US not abiding by its side of the bargain, he and Rouhani have begun losing their popularity, as some believe they were naive in trusting the US at the negotiating table (also corruption allegations regarding his son didn't help)."

Crucial presidential elections take place in Iran in 2017. It would be a Sisyphean task – and that’s an understatement — for the reformist Team Rouhani to accumulate political support. The principalists would fall over them like a ton of bricks. No Rafsanjani in the background does not necessarily imply the next president will be a principalist. Still, no one knows who will entertain the hard task of convincing notorious principalists such as Ali Akbar Velayati or the Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani to support a second Rouhani administration.

With Rafsanjani out, it's safe to assume hardliners such as Ahmadinejad, the former head of the judiciary Mohammad Yazdi, and the ultra-hardcore Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a.k.a "The Crocodile", will be back with a vengeance. And there's an even more earth-shattering problem. Crucially, last year Rafsanjani got the most votes in the election of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the all-powerful clerical club that approves Ayatollah Khamenei's successor. It was virtually a done deal that Rafsanjani would have got his candidate to win the Big Prize. Not anymore.

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Page last modified: 12-01-2017 18:46:16 ZULU