The Passing of a Pragmatic Politician in Iran

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Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani © Υπουργείο Εξωτερικών

President Rafsanjani lived a controversial life, but his basic efforts for Iran should not be forgotten.

The death of Iran’s fourth president, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, hit headlines on January 8. Having served from 1989 to 1993, Rafsanjani was unofficially dubbed the “general of construction.” He was praised by a significant number of Iranians for his efforts to help restore the nation following an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Rafsanjani has been described by many observers, including The Guardian’s Iran correspondent, as the country’s oldest and “greatest political survivor.” Since the early days of the anti-shah movement, Rafsanjani was involved in efforts to introduce democratic institutions in the country predicated on theocracy and Islamic jurisprudence. However, there were times when he questioned the legitimacy of clerical rule without public endorsement. In 2015 during the Persian New Year, Rafsanjani addressed a letter to the Iranian people in which he likened “clergy without people” to “chaff.”

2005 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN

His approach to leadership and the superiority of public decisions rendered him a popular politician for a group of disenfranchised Iranians, who believed their voices were not being heard. At times, he was accused of promoting aristocracy and oligarchy. In a highly-controversial live television debate in June 2009—which was criticized by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attacked Rafsanjani and even blamed members of his family for Iran’s challenges and failures.

Ahmadinejad’s rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, was intellectually close to Rafsanjani and was his political advisor when he was president. However, Ahmadinejad has clearly not let go of his obvious animosity toward Rafsanjani, even after the latter died. They had competed against each other in the 2005 presidential election, and Ahmadinejad won a run-off after finishing second in the first round, trailing Rafsanjani.

Upon hearing news of his rival’s death, Ahmadinejad’s message of condolences did not identify Rafsanjani’s representative clerical title, instead using an unrelated one that was one rank below the one he held in the hierarchy of religious positions in Shia jurisprudence. It was understood—at least by Rafsanjani’s sympathizers—that Ahmadinejad did not refuse to hide his rivalry with the late president, even when he was not alive to defend himself and his credentials.

This name-calling and defamatory approach has been representative of Ahmadinejad’s modus operandi for some time—one of an untrained politician with undiplomatic manners. He exhibited the persistence of those traits in his message of condolences.

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REACTION FROM AROUND THE WORLD

Ahmadinejad was not alone in extending sympathy to Rafsanjani’s family and the people of Iran. There were several world leaders, including the heads of state and government of Arab and European countries, who eulogized the late president. They praised his role in promoting moderation and improvement in Iran’s foreign policy approach during his time in office and beyond.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said offered their condolences. Rafsanjani, who was 82 at the time of his death, was known for improving Iranian relations with the Arab world. He had even built up a close personal friendship with the late Saudi King Abdullah.

In an unprecedented development, the US government also responded to the death of Iran’s pragmatic politician, which sent shockwaves throughout the country’s political system. John Kirby, a US State Department spokesperson, literally argued with a reporter who wanted to elicit some debatable answers from a US government official on the history of Rafsanjani’s actions and his rhetoric in dealing with the United States. However, Kirby made it clear that for a family which is shocked and bereaved, it is only appropriate to receive messages of sympathy and condolences, while describing Rafsanjani as a “prominent figure” in Iran’s history.

THE LEGACY OF RAFSANJANI

Rafsanjani, like any other politician, was not perfect. His judgments and political decisions have always been subject to public debate and underpinned by controversy. Allegations against him and his family members could fill a long list, but his opponents have put on hold the propagation of those charges—apparently to observe some posthumous salutation.

But the fact that Rafsanjani’s actions were widely questioned—especially since the political and personal lives of few politicians of his magnitude would not be subject to such scrutiny—probably meant he didn’t have a problem with transparency.

Throughout his lifetime, Rafsanjani continued to narrate vivid, credible memories of his interactions with the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in turn highlighting his close personal ties to the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This drew bitter responses from people who found their interests at stake if historically significant stories were to be retold. That’s why they turned to shooting the messenger at critical junctures when the reproduction of Ayatollah Khomeini’s quotes or life stories threatened them.

donate to nonprofit media organizationsRafsanjani’s transparency and his insistence on the centrality of the ballot box cost him a lot. For one thing, most of his family members, especially after the 2005 election campaign against Ahmadinejad, were subject to undisciplined defamation. Disrespecting and insulting political figures, as well as members of public, is not condoned by Iran’s constitution and general media regulations.

It’s true that he had once proposed unlimited presidential terms through constitutional modifications, but Rafsanjani did not really generate undue uproar because he was overtly snubbed when he enjoyed immense support in major constituencies.

Toward the end of his life, Rafsanjani threw his weight behind the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which is popularly referred to as the Iran deal. The signing of this international agreement between Iran and the P5+1 group, following a long deadlock of nearly a decade, relieved Iranians of years of pressure, strangulating sanctions and freed millions of dollars of the country’s frozen assets across the world. Just recently, Iran was able to take delivery of the first batch of American/European-produced commercial passenger aircraft it bought directly from Airbus after nearly 40 years.

Rafsanjani lived a controversial life. However, his legacy is one of the first attempts made in post-war Iran to introduce de-statization of the national economy, and bringing moderation and pragmatism to foreign policy. The late president’s basic efforts should not be forgotten.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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