Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death rattles Iran reformers

Former president’s support for Hassan Rouhani will be missed in May elections

Mourners at the funeral of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pivotal figure in the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979. Photograph:  Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Mourners at the funeral of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pivotal figure in the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979. Photograph: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

 

Hours before he died of a heart attack, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was discussing politics over lunch with Iran’s health minister.

It was a subject that had been a passion of the former Iranian president since he studied theology in the holy city of Qom as a teenager, but on Sunday the conversation was tinged with concern, according to Hassan Ghazizadeh-Hashemi, the minister.

Rafsanjani’s worries centred on the polarisation of Iran’s political scene – a reference to the power struggles playing out between pro-reform forces and regime hardliners.

Those tensions are expected to escalate as Iran prepares for presidential elections in May at which Hassan Rouhani, the centrist president, is seeking a second term. Before the sudden death of Rafsanjani on Sunday, Rouhani would have counted on the elder statesman as one of his key allies and campaigners in his political battle against hardliners.

Now, more than any other politician, Rouhani will be feeling the loss of a man who was a giant of Iranian politics from the time he helped found the Islamic republic four decades ago. And the ripple effects could be felt way beyond the elections, analysts say.

“It is not only the people who are scared about Iran’s future in the absence of Rafsanjani. You can see this fear in the highest echelons of the political hierarchy,” said Mohammad-Sadegh Javadi-Hesar, a reformist politician. “We have lost this massive capital for which there is no substitute.”

Regime hardliners

Rouhani and Rafsanjani forged an alliance in 2013 after the latter was barred from competing in that election after falling foul of regime hardliners. Backed also by Mohammad Khatami, another former president, Rouhani went on to a surprise victory over his hardline opponents.

The support of Rafsanjani, who was president from 1989 to 1997, was deemed critical. A senior cleric and pragmatic politician who played a leading role in the 1979 revolution, he was someone who could draw support from across Iranian society.

He was also credited with helping Rouhani push ahead with a landmark nuclear deal with world powers in 2015 that led to western nations lifting most sanctions on the Islamic republic.

Both men hoped the agreement would help Iran re-engage with the West after years of isolation and revive a moribund economy that had been battered by the trade embargoes.

Hardliners who have criticised the agreement for not bringing benefits to Iran and attacked Rouhani’s economic record may now be emboldened in their efforts to defeat the president.

Pro-reform groups, however, believe that the emotional eulogising of Rafsanjani, coupled with his public support for Rouhani in recent months, could still boost the president. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral in Tehran on Tuesday.

During one of his last interviews in November, Rafsanjani expressed concerns about state bodies attempting to sabotage Rouhani’s political and economic plans as the president faces resistance from hardliners. At the same time, he praised Rouhani for doing a good job at a difficult time, while saying his bid for re-election would be successful.

Ayatollah’s successor

Even if his prediction proves correct, the political battles are unlikely to end. Indeed, analysts say the more crucial struggle – albeit one played out beneath the surface – will be over the eventual succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 77-year-old supreme leader.

Some analysts say it is in this sphere of political intrigue that Rafsanjani’s presence will be most missed. Because of his strong links to the revolution, the political establishment, the business community and senior clergy, Rafsanjani was regarded as someone in a unique position to act as a bridge between the factions within the regime.

While reformists call for dramatic change, including moving towards a secular republic, hardliners believe any opening up of domestic and foreign policies would lead to the end of the revolution’s ideals of establishing an Islamic utopia.

Rafsanjani was also considered as someone who could have helped influence the decision of the Assembly of Experts – a clerical body tasked with selecting the next supreme leader – to keep Iran on a more moderate path.

Pro-reformers now fear hardliners could try to exploit the absence of Rafsanjani’s influence to drag Iran into another period of radical foreign policies and political suppression at home.

“This death has created a tsunami by which many political and social equations will change,” Javadi-Hesar said.

The shock death of Rafsanjani, at 82, has also focused minds on what could happen if Khamenei also suffered a similar abrupt ending.

“This is a fear that many have in their hearts but do not dare to talk about,” said one reformist. “From now on, we need to think about the future and how we can strengthen the institutions such as implementation of the constitution.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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