Tehran – Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran who died on Sunday evening at the age of 82, was an exceptional figure in the history of the Islamic Republic, and his death has left Iran’s moderates orphaned before the forthcoming presidential elections.
“Now I can die with peace of mind,” Rafsanjani had said in 2013, shortly after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a low-profile political figure at the time, achieved a landmark victory by defeating hardliners in presidential elections, thanks to Rafsanjani’s overwhelming support.
According to analysts, Rafsanjani’s death will have both short-term and long-term effects on Iran’s political scene.
Soon after news of his death broke, questions emerged over who may come to the aide of an embattled Rouhani in the May presidential election. In the long-term, Rafsanjani’s absence will cost the camp of moderates and reformists dearly, as his backing and behind-the-scene negotiations have always eased the political tensions with the conservative camp.
On Sunday evening, a large crowd of Iranian youths – expected to be a decisive voting force in the next presidential election – took to the streets around Shohada hospital, where Rafsanjani died, to hold a vigil.
Rafsanjani was a diehard politician and his reputation never ceased to grow, from a staunch revolutionary figure and player in the years leading to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, later to the closest associate of the late leader Ayatollah Khomeini in founding the pillars of the Islamic republic as parliament speaker and a top member of the revolutionary council.
He escaped several assassination attempts and was seriously wounded in 1979. He was also credited with leading the country out of a bloody eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq.
Serving as the country’s president for two consecutive terms from 1989 to 1997, Rafsanjani was crowned as the “reconstruction commander” of the country. He was highly praised, even by his opponents, for stepping down at the end of his second term, despite the fact that he was practically the most powerful figure in post-revolution Iran.
Members of the arts community have credited the success of post-revolution films in Iran to Rafsanjani, because he endorsed artistic and social freedom and tolerance.
According to one analyst, the top priority for reformists and moderates in the absence of Rafsanjani will be to focus on winning the next election overwhelmingly.
“The passions of the crowd and the middle class … who deeply respected Rafsanjani, will come to the aid of president Rouhani,” said Hamidreza Jalalipour, a senior reformist and political analyst.
Jalalipour noted that reformists have no choice but to rally behind Rouhani to foil any attempt by hardliners who may be emboldened by Rafsanjani’s death – an event that he believes will unify the middle class in favour of Rouhani.
“I am quite sure that Rafsanjani’s death will help Rouhani secure the second term, but he needs to garner more votes than the first term to be able to stand up against the hardliners,” Jalalipour added.
Unlike many politicians in Iran, Rafsanjani’s influence did not end after he left office, as he continued to play a key role in resolving political disputes between Iranian reformists and conservative factions through his friendly ties to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Rafsanjani, with his pragmatist approach and far-reaching influence, played a balancing role to moderate extremist views of both reformists and conservatives.
After losing the 2005 presidential election to the hardline candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani remained as the most influential and outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad for the next eight years. In 2013, reformists rallied behind his endorsed candidate, the unknown Rouhani, earning him the title of kingmaker in Iran’s political scene.
Rafsanjani’s demise will be greatly felt in international politics as well, as analysts note that he was highly adept at rapprochement with neighbouring Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.
“Rafsanjani, with his pragmatist approach and far-reaching influence, played a balancing role to moderate extremist views of both reformists and conservatives. The absence of this moderating and mediating role will be tangible and hugely felt in the future politics of Iran,” Iranian columnist Sadreddin Moosavi told Al Jazeera.
“I dare say that the nuclear deal owes its success to Rafsanjani as the key mentor of president Rouhani. Rouhani inherited his moderate foreign polices from Rafsanjani,” Moosavi added.
Ahmad Tavakoli, a prominent conservative politician and longtime opponent of Rafsanjani, burst into tears during a television appearance following Rafsanjani’s death, noting: “We should have been kinder to him! Nobody should be too proud not to tell his merits and virtues.”
At the time of his death, Rafsanjani chaired the Expediency Council, a political consultative body responsible for resolving disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, comprising hardline clerics and jurists.
While it is still not clear who will replace him on the Expediency Council, some have speculated that former parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a moderate conservative, may be in the running.
Despite his many accolades, Rafsanjani also had his critics. Following his death, some Iranians took to social media to blame him for the crackdown on political dissidents in the early years of the Islamic Revolution.
“Some people simply look at his legacy in [the] last two decades of his life, ignoring his [early] years in power and his mistreatment & intolerance of dissidents,” tweeted Hosseini, an Iranian activist. Another tweet blamed Rafsanjani for “driving his pre-revolution allies out of power for good”.
Condolence messages have also poured in. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised Rafsanjani as “veteran revolutionary, shrewd politician and an old friend and companion”.
Rouhani also tweeted: “The soul of the great man of the revolution and politics, symbol of patience and resistance departed to heavens.”
According to Sadegh Zibakalam, a Tehran university professor and prominent reformist, Rafsanjani “patiently stood against extremism, and history will remember him as a hero like Amir Kabir [Iranian reformist chancellor slain in 1851] and Mohammad Mosaddegh”.