Hashemi Rafsanjani: A voice for diversity in the Islamic Republic of Iran
Less than one month after his death, the legacy of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian President, has given rise to heated discussions inside and outside Iran.
Hashemi Rafsanjani played an incontrovertibly unparalleled role in the 38 year old Islamic Republic, founded following the Islamic Revolution of 1979. During Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule (1979-1989), when Rafsanjani was the speaker of the parliament, and then in the first eight years of Ayatollah Khamenei’s (1989-present), when he served as president, he was considered as the second, if not the top, influential figure in Iran. After his presidential term, Rafsanjani was appointed as the head of the Expediency Council, an advisory body with some legislative powers, whose members are appointed directly by the Supreme Leader. Nevertheless, his influence steadily diminished: three years after the end of his presidency, in the parliamentary election of 1999, he became the 30th elected member of parliament for Tehran in a 30 member list, a degrading position, which he soon preferred to relinquish.
In that period, he was heavily under attack by the Reformist wing of the establishment, which was emboldened by Mohammad Khatami’s victory in the presidential elections of 1996, a victory that was ironically owed to Rafsanjani. He lost the presidential elections of 2005 to Mahmood Ahmadinejad, who belonged to the hardline faction and was also ironically one of Rafsanjani’s supporters in the 1999 parliamentary elections.
Eight years later, in 2013, when he became a candidate for presidency once again, Hashemi Rafsanjani was barred by the Guardian Council, the body tasked to vet presidential and parliamentary candidates. This was a fatal blow to his status, but the candidate he favored, Hassan Rouhani, won the elections. Hashemi kept his position as the head of the Expediency Council until the last day of his life, while he was under heavy attack by his rivals, mainly the hardliners.
Rafsanjani’s political career saw many twists and turns to itself, not only in terms of the positions he held and his ups and downs in the hierarchy of power, but also in terms of stances he took and the social and political forces with whom he was aligned. In the early years of the revolution, when he performed Friday prayer’s sermon speeches, social justice was one of his favorite motifs, which provoked opposition by a number of conservative clerics. Later on, during his presidency, however, Rafsanjani followed a free market approach to the economy, angering many on both the left and the right, and alienating many ordinary people from himself. He attempted to strike a deal with the Reagan administration to buy American weapons in 1986, while he was part of anti-US policy and rhetoric that began with the 1981 overtaking of the US embassy in Tehran by radical students. Probably, the most important political decision taken by him was to end the eight year long war with Iraq, for which he was credited at the time, but in recent years, his decision has been criticized by the outer fringes of the hardline spectrum as treason.
During Ayatollah Khomeini’s rule, Rafsanjani’s role was to strike a balance between the two dominant factions within the Islamic Republic. During his first term as president, the radical faction (which was branded as Islamic leftists) was forced out of most positons of power that they held under Ayatollah Khomeini. His government’s was based on a coalition of conservatives and loyal technocrats, a coalition that was fractured in his second term in the office, with him supporting the technocrats.
Rafsanjani played a significant role in bringing to power the leftists (who had rebranded themselves as Reformists), headed by Mohammad Khatami, but he was attacked by radical Reformists who despised most of his policies during his presidency, and felt powerful enough to get rid of him. He was on the conservative list for the parliamentary elections of 1999 to become the only elected person of the list, though with the lowest number of votes in Tehran. This was not to continue, however, when, in the second round of the presidential elections of 2005, Reformists opted to vote for Rafsanjani against Ahmadinejad, once their own candidates were sent out of the race. Conservative hardliners, including Ahmadinejad, who worked hard to have Rafsanjani elected in the 1999 parliamentary elections, this time turned against him harshly. Ahmadinejad’s personal attacks on Rafsanjani and his family intensified especially in the former’s campaign for the second term as president. Following the disturbances ensuing the 2009 presidential elections, Rafsanjani was tolerated less by the conservative establishment, and after a short term as the head of clerical Experts Assembly, which is charged with appointing a new supreme leader, the conservatives removed him from the post. By the end of Ahmadinejad’s second term, Rafsanjani made another bid for presidency, only to be rejected by the powerful Guardian Council, a sign that the political system did not want him in the position. Nevertheless, his influence brought about the victory for Hassan Rouhani, to whom he and the Reformist camp lent their support. Ever since, he came under fierce attack by hardliners, but kept the position of the Head of the Expediency Council, being appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei.
The question may arise as to how to account for Rafsanjani’s political behavior. Was he an opportunist politician, changing stances and loyalties and always seeking positions of power? Nobody in Iran considers him to be so. He was not an unprincipled politician looking for survival at any cost. By contrast, he was a politician ready to take unpopular policies and decisions which might have strong backlash against him. This leads us to the first feature of his political behavior, i.e., pragmatism: Rafsanjani was a pragmatist politician, who was not hesitant to change the course of his policy, when it was clear that it was not going to reach its aim. He was ready for hard compromises, without being constrained with political dogmas. Although widely considered a shrewd politician, he was not always successful or made the change of course on time.
His second and more important feature was that he was a voice for a diverse set of people and groups. Various social and political forces could identify with him and his policies. Forces of the left or right, conservative or Reformist, Islamic Republic loyalists, man in street and even dissidents, in different time periods and sometimes all at the same time, supported and voted for him, feeling at ease. He was able to accommodate diverging forces, which otherwise could have been threatening to the Islamic Republic and the country at large. He had no charisma and yet, there is no sign that he wanted to appear as a charismatic figure. On the other hand, he possessed the ability or shrewdness to make many people and groups content with his polices and with the political system he helped to establish. That ability, however, had its own limitations and was not sufficient to keep him afloat on the top rank of the system. Nevertheless, it is this second feature of Rafsanjani, his ability to speak to and represent diverse groups, that the Islamic Republic might most miss.
* Seyed Mohammad Ali Taghavi is an associate professor in Political Science, at Ferdowsi University of Mashhad, Iran. He is currently a visiting scholar at Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University. The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Iranian Diplomacy's editorial policy.