The death of former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani last Sunday left a gap in Iran’s power structure, but his direct legacy of more pragmatic and open politics had already been marginalised by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rafsanjani’s most recent moment in the political limelight was during the turbulent pre-election period in 2013 when Rafsanjani was suddenly banned from standing and he gave all his support to current President Hassan Rouhani, making a crucial difference at the time.
But 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. This will be a very tough battle as the deal has not delivered the economic bonanza that Rouhani had promised and the conservatives and isolationists are lining up to say ‘I told you so’. Rafsanjani’s absence will not make much difference to that bruising battle, even if he would have been completely on Rouhani’s side.
Looking back at Rafsanjani’s legacy, the American Iranian Council summed it up: “Rafsanjani was a towering figure in Iranian post-revolutionary politics. In addition to serving as the Islamic Republic’s president, he was a former speaker of the Parliament, chairman of the Assembly of Experts, chairman of the Expediency Council and head of Iran’s military forces during the Iran-Iraq war.
“Only a few personalities in the Islamic Republic can match the depth and extent of influence he wielded on the events that followed the 1979 Revolution. He helped found the Republic, commandeered the eight-year war with Iraq, attempted to curb revolutionary zeal, adopted a liberal economic policy and eliminated many of the regime’s opponents in its formative years.
“An astute politician, Rafsanjani navigated the post-revolutionary Iran by weaving together an ideological commitment to the Islamic revolution, an authoritarian approach to politics and a pragmatic policy towards international relations. While he never travelled to the United States, he was inclined towards better relations”.
A vital turning point in his political career was the 2005 presidential elections when he suffered a humiliating defeat to archconservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This showed how those revolutionaries, who also wanted to reach out to the outside world, could be slapped back down by the deeply inward-looking strand of Iranian revolutionary thinking that considers that not only does Iran not need the outside world, it can only be tainted by it.
Even if he lost that election, Rafsanjani was able to stand against such thinking for some time. Scott Peterson of CS Monitor quoted Adnan Tabatabai, an Iranian analyst and head of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO), a Bonn-based think tank, as saying “Rafsanjani’s political gravitas went beyond political factions. Even his opponents knew he wanted to preserve the [Islamic revolutionary] system. That gave him a more solid position than any reformist will ever have.”
Gary Sick of Columbia University commented that Rafsanjani’s “place in history will depend very much on the fate of the very system that he helped to put in place, but then came to criticise for its anaemic performance and especially its self-destructive rivalries, corruption and discord”.
Sick added that “Rafsanjani was truly a pragmatist. He seemed to believe genuinely that Iran’s revolutionary system would survive only if it engaged with the outside world. There was never any doubt about his devotion to the system that he had done so much to shape. But he was willing to go beyond stale dogma in pursuit of rescuing a system that he recognised was performing very badly.
“He was a businessman and his solutions always seemed to involve deal-making. His attempt to bring in the US and others involved making them an offer they could not refuse. Hence the Conoco offer, or the trade of hostages for Bush’s “good will”. However, the US always found it could refuse the offer whenever the time came to pay up. It was one of his great disappointments.
Rafsanjani’s final political position was president of the Expediency Council, and when he died, he was coming to the end of his five-year term. The Expediency Council is responsible for settling disputes among the three branches of the government and has acquired extra power through its role as the adviser to Khamenei. But even in the Expediency Council, Rafsanjani had been successively marginalised as Khamanei appointed more and more hardliners (known as principalists) — including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Saeed Jalili, chief nuclear negotiator under Ahmadinejad and one of the country’s most high-profile hardliners.
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.