Rafsanjani’s Passing and the Future of Iran

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Views from the Region

The most common analysis in regional commentary on the death of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, 82, a former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, is that his passing is a painful blow to the moderates in Tehran. A presidential election is looming this spring, and the incumbent, Hassan Rouhani, was already facing an electorate which has seen little tangible economic benefit from the JCPOA nuclear deal. Now Mr. Rouhani must contest the election without one of his camp’s most iconic supporters. But there are many who contest Rafsanjani’s popular characterization in the West as a moderate politician, or who think that it is unlikely that his passing will have much of an impact at all, given his recent political isolation.

In an op-ed for the Jordan Times, James Zogby highlights some of the findings of a recent poll conducted by Zogby Research Services regarding the upcoming presidential election: “[T]he Iranian people are not happy with either their economic situation or their government’s priorities and performance….In the wake of the signing [of] the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the P5+1 powers in April of 2015, Iranians had high expectations that their lives would improve….The policy priorities of the government are not in sync with those of the Iranian people. The polls show that the public wants a better economy and more jobs, more political freedom and peaceful ties with their neighbors. What it is getting instead is deeper engagement, more money spent and lives lost in foreign wars they want to end. And as the economic data demonstrates, the Rouhani government is facing the classic choice of ‘guns or butter’. With finite resources, more guns simply mean less butter. That is why the electorate that put him in office is now showing signs of deep discontent.”

Gulf News’s Francis Mathew agrees that the electoral fortunes of President Rouhani, the current leader of the moderate camp, took another hit after the death of the former president: “Rafsanjani does not leave a coherent political party or faction ready to support his ideas, partly because his politics came from many strands, as a hard-core revolutionary who was also a pragmatist. This means that Rouhani will have to fight the forthcoming 2017 presidential election on his own record and hope to win by convincing people that the nuclear deal was worth it….Much of the world is waiting to see if Iran’s pragmatists like Rafsanjani can win themselves a substantial and more permanent position in Iran’s power structures. On present showing, that seems unlikely and Rouhani’s unhappy experience with a nuclear deal that did not work will not have strengthened their hand.”

But in an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed believes that such eulogizing misrepresents both the legacy of the former president as well as the extent of the political isolation Mr. Rafsanjani had been subjected to in recent years: “Reports that Iran is in danger following the death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the regime’s prominent figures, are not true. Tehran lost its hawk years ago, stripping him of his powers and putting him in isolation and under observation….The Iranian opposition was suspicious about Rafsanjani’s death, because he had been practicing his activities until his last day despite his old age. Regardless of whether he died of natural causes or not, it is certain that the current leadership practically killed him years ago when it isolated him….Rafsanjani was a political fox long before taking office. He was keen to portray himself as a moderate leader, but that did not mean he was moderate by international standards.”

The National’s editorial on Mr. Rafsanjani’s passing was equally dismissive of his reputation as a moderate political figure, pointing out that his political transformation occurred only after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005: “Political memories are often short, particularly in countries far away from the Middle East. It has been notable that some of the obituaries of Iran’s former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have focused on his reputation as a ‘reformer’ — without noting that he acquired that reputation very late in his political career, and only after he had failed to outflank those even more hardline than him….It was only after he lost the presidency to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005 that he began to style himself a reformer. After Mr Ahmadinejad won again in 2009, in an election whose result was bitterly contested, his rival Rafsanjani endorsed the Green Movement that arose against his presidency….A full accounting of Rafsanjani’s political career is important to assess his effect on Iranian politics, and to understand why, even today, he is still remembered as a hugely divisive and controversial figure in Iran’s complex political landscape.”

Ali Kushki, however, writing for the Tehran Times, is quick to construct the image of a wily political leader who was careful not to be pigeonholed in one category or the other: “Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been and continues to be a name to conjure with in Iran’s contemporary history. Over more than six decades of political life, he never stepped into [the] wilderness as indicated by dozens of nicknames, such as a ‘pillar of the Revolution’ and ‘man for all seasons,’ he earned….A lifetime practitioner of conservatism who never was thought to seriously contemplate political reform, he rose to enlist the support of a class of scattered reformists who later on threw their full weight behind incumbent President Hassan Rouhani in 2013….All these efforts, at times seen by opponents as paradoxical and a backing down from his revolutionary stances, were in fact part of a dynamic agenda Rafsanjani perfected all … his political life.”

Mindful of the possible implications for Iran’s foreign policy, Al Monitor’s Hamidreza Azizi cautions that one ought to be careful not to “overstate” Rafsanjani’s role: “These considerations have caused some observers to speculate that Rafsanjani’s death could strike a further blow to Iran’s already deteriorated relations with some of its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. However, a deeper analysis of the core logic of such an argument makes it evident that it is based on a false analogy between two completely different eras….While Rafsanjani played a great personal role in bringing about Arab-Iranian detente, the success of those efforts was due to the specific situation and priorities of postwar Iran. Given the very different domestic and international contexts Iran faces today, the relevance of Rafsanjani — whether in life or in death — in potentially forging a different Saudi-Iranian relationship should not be overstated.”

But Al Monitor’s Ali Hashem worries that the death of Mr. Rafsanjani indeed makes relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia more difficult, headlining the question of whether the death of the former leader is the “nail in the coffin of Saudi-Iran dialogue”: “With the death of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani two years after King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away, the twin pillars of the bridge over the Persian Gulf no longer exist….The personal relationship between the two men helped re-launch Iranian-Saudi and Iranian-Gulf relations positively. Over 1995-1996, Rafsanjani laid the foundation for an era of normalization that flourished under the administration of his successor, Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Rafsanjani continued to play a main role in maintaining this relation[ship] from his position as chairman of the Expediency Council and later as head of the Assembly of Experts….Indeed, dialogue among the main sects of Islam was an issue of interest to Rafsanjani, who appeared in a TV show along with Sunni cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi on Al Jazeera back in 2007 to try to reach common ground as part of efforts to combat sectarian strife.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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