Iran began a three-day mourning period Monday for the passing of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a central figure in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. His death sent shock waves across Iran as it gears up for a presidential election later this year.
Rafsanjani was president of the Expediency Council, an influential advisory body to the Supreme Leader, at the time of his death. His passing leaves a vacancy within the Council, which wields tremendous influence as the ultimate adjudicator in disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council.
The death of Rafsanjani, who is considered the mentor of current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, is a blow to cautious moderates and Rouhani’s re-election bid. The 82-year-old Rafsanjani made economic advancement a centerpiece during his time as president from 1989-1997, but his presidency was also mired by allegations of corruption and human rights violations against dissidents at home.
Rafsanjani once suggested that the slogan “Death to America” be dropped from Tehran’s list of Friday prayers, according to The New York Times. The weekly prayer address is an important moment in Iran’s political and religious calendar, and the slogan highlights anti-Western sentiments harbored by Iran’s conservative, religious right.
The loss is also devastating to reformist-minded activists and critics of the nation’s fervent religious right. While Rafsanjani was a close associate of the ayatollah during the 1979 revolution, he was also seen as someone who protected reformists in Iran and spoke for the moderate voices in Tehran.
The former president publicly clashed with Ayatollah Khamenei, taking to Twitter in March to assail the current Iranian leadership. The “world of tomorrow is one of negotiations, not the world of missiles,” Rafsanjani said, without mentioning the Ayatollah by name.
Khamenei responded to the tweet, saying that, “Enemies continue strengthening their military and missile sectors. How can anyone say the era of missiles has passed?” The ayatollah went as far as to suggest that Rafsanjani (without saying his name) may have been intentionally committing treason with the tweet.
Rafsanjani lost some influence during the reign of conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who took over in 2003. Many of the country’s poor flocked to Ahmadinejad, turned off by the affluent elite that seemed to surround Rafsanjani and his associates.
For some American officials, Rouhani’s election in 2013 opened up new possibilities on potential collaboration between Iran and the West on issues like nuclear proliferation. Rafsanjani supported the deal, despite those on the right who wanted the deal scrapped.
Rafsanjani’s death will make Rouhani’s re-election an uphill battle as he competes against the country’s passionate conservative right. Few possess the credentials or friendship with the ayatollah to remain a viable, vocal opponent to the nation’s conservative base. Rafsanjani was recognized as the voice of peace during the Iran-Iraq War, and he was instrumental in helping the current ayatollah reach his position.
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