Iran’s ‘mythical moderate’: Rafsanjani blended economic liberalism, political authoritarianism


Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (above, left) , who has died aged 82, was one of the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran; a shrewd politician who many Iranians saw as both a blessing and a curse for their country, The Financial Times reports:

At home, he was seen as Iran’s saviour at critical times, as when he pushed for a nuclear deal with major powers in 2015 to help prevent a war, yet ruthless at other times, such as when he failed to prevent the mass execution of dissidents in the 1980s. … The loss of such a heavyweight may further intensify the power struggle between reformers who argue that pro-democracy changes are essential for the regime’s survival and hardliners who resist opening up the country.

“This is like a major quake to the political establishment,” said one reform-minded politician. “His death will shake the regime’s balance at a sensitive time.”

Proponent of clerical dictatorship

As a leader who was enchanted by the success of East Asian autocracies, Rafsanjani never seriously contemplated political reform, note analysts Reuel Gerecht and Ray Takeyh. At times, the mullah acknowledged that the onerous cultural strictures imposed by the state were alienating the youth from the regime, they write for The Washington Post:

However, as a proponent of clerical dictatorship, he could never countenance measures that diminished the authority of the state. During his presidency, the press was severely censored, oppositionists were regularly jailed, and dissidents at home and abroad were assassinated. The most feared intelligence minister since the founding of the Islamic republic, Ali Fallahian, was Rafsanjani’s man. Rafsanjani would at times mimic reformist slogans and hold round-tables with intellectuals, but Iran’s terrorism apparatus remained very much intact.

Known as a pragmatist and centrist inclined toward economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, Mr. Rafsanjani was accused by critics of corruption in amassing his fortune and of a readiness for harsh tactics to deal with dissent at home and abroad, The New York Times reports:

Argentina has accused Mr. Rafsanjani and other senior Iranian figures of complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires (right), in which 85 people died. In 1997, a German court concluded that the highest levels of Iran’s political leadership had ordered the killing five years earlier of four exiled Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. The events added weight to American assertions that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism. Mr. Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997.

Rafsanjani’s tentative efforts to integrate Iran into the international community fell short, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari and George Mason University’s Shaul Bakhash. His death nevertheless not only ends a remarkable political career; it also removes from the scene a politician who in his mature years represented the more pragmatic and moderate tendency in Iran’s deeply divided politics, they write for The Atlantic (RTWT).

“Rafsanjani was no bleeding-heart liberal at the start of the revolution,” Bakhash told The New Yorker’s Robin Wright. “But he came to see that the real path for the future was through pragmatism, both at home and abroad.”

There simply are no replacements for Mr. Rafsanjani, analysts from all factions say. His death also reflects the dwindling number of leaders from the generation that overthrew the shah nearly four decades ago. Most are now in their 80s or even older, The Times adds.

“It is a very powerful reminder that Iran is at the beginning of a major leadership transition that will play a very psychological role in Iran’s politics,” said Vali R. Nasr, a Middle East scholar who is dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“I think this in some ways rattles Iran’s political system, in that it underscores the fact that with everything else going on — Syria, the nuclear deal — there will be a passing of the baton to the next generation,” Mr. Nasr said.

The more immediate challenge is to Iran’s moderates and reformists, a fractious coalition that united behind Rouhani (left) in 2013 and in parliamentary elections last year. Without Rafsanjani’s support, reformists worry their political gains will erode, The LA Times adds.

“His absence may affect the next presidential election and make it difficult for President Rouhani to be reelected,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an analyst who sides with the reformists.

“In any case, it means a shift toward more conservatism within the ruling establishment. Whoever is appointed to replace him in the Expediency Council will for sure be less reformist and less pro-Western.”

Totalitarian theocracy

The totalitarian theocracy that replaced the Peacock Throne after the 1979 revolution was as much Rafsanjani’s creation as Khomeini’s, Sohrab Ahmari writes for The Wall Street Journal:

Khomeini provided the theological underpinnings for his model of absolute clerical rule. But it was Rafsanjani who fleshed out the ideas, as speaker of Parliament in the 1980s and president for much of the ’90s. Rafsanjani delivered the wake-up call to Iranian liberals and leftists, who still dreamt of sharing power with the Islamists. “Until we had our people in place,” he told one such liberal in 1981, “we were ready to tolerate [other] gentlemen on the stage.” But now the regime would brook no faction but those that followed the “Line of the Imam”—Khomeini. A decade of purges, prison rapes and executions followed.

Rafsanjani was one of several leading officials, including Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and a number of sitting and retired judges and officials, including former head of the Supreme Court, Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, liable to arrest under international law for complicity in the murder of thousands of political prisoners at the end of the Iran/Iraq War, according to a 145-page report by Geoffrey Robertson, QC. He urged the Security Council to set up a special court, along the lines of the International Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to try these men “for one of the worst single human rights atrocities since the Second World War”. Robertson’s inquiry was conducted for the Washington-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, an NGO supported by the National Endowment for Democracy.

“Rafsanjani was a man who was always anti-American, stuck to Iranian ideology, but at the same time was preaching that there should be relations with the United States — that there should be an update domestically of Iran’s harsh ideological rules,” Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, told NPR.

Erdbrink adds: “He is and was a good friend of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei, but at the same time had the stature to criticize his and other policies. With him gone, it will be harder to voice certain criticisms.”

It’s unclear who Rafsanjani supported as the next ayatollah, but Ibrahim Raisi is widely considered to be named Iran’s next supreme leader. Raisi, 56, has served as lead prosecutor of the Special Court of the Clergy and as a member of the “Death Commission,” which made thousands of Iranians political prisoners, reports suggest.

“The position of the supreme leader was once thought to belong to an esteemed cleric known for his theological erudition. However, Khamenei’s lackluster religious credentials have paved the way for an even less impressive figure who has spent his professional life weaving conspiracies in the regime’s darkest corners,” wrote Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of “The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.”

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