Iran in Flux: Death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani

It is difficult to overstate the influence that Ayatollah and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had within Iran. He was the Islamic Republic’s most prominent founding father after Ayatollah Khomeini himself. In fact, Rafsanjani is being buried in Khomeini’s mausoleum, demonstrating the respect and influence he commanded in the country, and his funeral today was attended by an estimated 2.5 million people. Iranian politics has long been divided into two opposing factions: hardliners and reformists. What made Rafsanjani unique was that he was neither, he is best described as a pragmatist.

In his early years as a leader of the Revolution of 1979 and through the end of his two terms as President, he was known for his harsh treatment of dissidents and support for Iranian proxies abroad. As time went on, his views gradually moderated. He first became a supporter of economic liberalization during his terms as President, and then in 1997 helped Iran’s first true reformist President, Mohammed Khatami, win the election. Rafsanjani joined the opposition in criticizing the actions of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and even went so far as to publicly support the nationwide pro-democracy protests in 2009. It was also with Rafsanjani’s support that current President Hassan Rouhani, a reformist, was elected. With Iranians heading to the polls again in May of this year for their Presidential elections, the death of such an influential backer is most unfortunate.

Rafsanjani’s status as a founding father was central to his role as the nation’s prime political mediator and bridge-builder. It allowed him to speak about the need for reform and still command respect from the hardliner movement. It allowed him to command respect from the reformist movement despite his hardliner past. He was at once “an agent of continuity” to the hardliners and a “champion of the reformists” (BBC). The death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani means uncertainty for Iran. In a deeply divided and polarized country, the last thing needed was the loss of its greatest compromiser. Even with his moderating influence, Iran has already seen demonstrations with crowds numbering in the millions. But now, without his moderating influence, the gulf and hostility between the hardliners and the reformists will grow sharply and the likelihood of renewed mass protests greatly increases. The hardliners are now in firm control of the levers of power in the country, but with a populace growing ever more impatient for change the Iranian regime cannot withstand many more body blows until the current political climate boils over. With the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, aging and in poor health it seems likely that such a crisis will happen sooner rather then later.