Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a dominant figure in Iran’s post-revolution politics, died on January 8, aged 82, from a heart attack.
Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, known as Hashemi in local circles but also nicknamed the “Shark” for his beardless appearance and cunning business acumen, was one of the founding figures of the country’s Islamic movement that prevailed in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A close confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early 1980s, Rafsajani became synonymous throughout his career as a world-class political, economic and business dealmaker.
Rafsanjani was born on August 25, 1934 in the village of Bahreman near the Iranian city of Rafsanjan in Kerman Province. His family were wealthy pistachio nut farmers while growing up, and through his later life he became synonymous with this so-called “green gold”.
Leaving his native region, Rafsanjani studied Islamic theology in the religious city of Qom, with the future revolutionary leader Ayatollah Khomeini alongside him. During their studies, the two men became close in their struggle against the Pahlavi monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah.
During the Shah’s White Revolution, which intended to Westernize Iran, Rafsanjani and Khomeini began a campaign from the 1960s that ultimately ended up in his arrest and imprisonment in the former Qasr prison in central Tehran. The prison has since been turned into a museum, with the mugshot of Rafsanjani proudly displayed since the site was reopened for tourists in 2013.
Rafsanjani was arrested seven times in total, spending some four years in jail for his political activities, according to documents released since the revolution.
Interestingly, prior to the fall of the Shah, he traveled to the US and several other Western nations on tours and business.
The seasoned cleric was by this point spending more time with groups opposed to the Iranian monarchy, including the now-outlawed People’s Mujahadeen of Iran. The group fell out favour with the clerics following the revolution and was sent in to exile in Iraq. Following their ousting, the group attempted to dethrone the new Islamic Republic with targeted bombings and other activities, killing many senior clerics and founding members of the fledgling republic.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini from Paris where he had been in exile, Rafsanjani became one of the members of the Council of the Islamic Revolution from the get-go. The council was formed by Khomeini to deal with the tumultuous transition from the post-Pahlavi environment, to what would ultimately become the Islamic Republic in 1981.
Meanwhile, with the start of the Iran-Iraq War, initiated by Saddam Hussein, Rafsanjani took over the reins of commander-in-chief of the Iranian armed forces. During the long eight-year battle for the western frontier of the country, Rafsanjani and current President Hassan Rouhani were pictured going to the front lines on several occasions, sitting in the trenches with the troops.
The former military chief was also credited with forcing Ayatollah Khomeini to accept the UN Security Council Resolution 598 that brought an end to hostilities in 1988, as well as creating the now infamous Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps. He later fell out with the leaders of that military group, who have since fought to counter his influence in politics and business.
Rafsanjani helped develop Iran’s election law and create several parts of the Islamic Republic’s political structure, including the Expediency Discernment Council, which he chaired until his death.
During his tenure as parliamentary speaker, he was famously recorded as giving the all-clear for Ayatollah Khamenei to take on the mantle of Supreme Leader, although he emphasized that the late Khomeini had wanted Khamenei to assume the post on his death.
Rafsanjani, became the fourth president of Iran, serving two consecutive terms between 1989 and 1997. The cleric-turned-businessmen-turned-politician won his first presidential election with 93% of the popular vote against one other candidate. With his rise to formal elected power, he ushered in a new era of pro-market policies, which brought in the first wave of privatizations in the country.
Following the cessation of violence between Iran and Iraq, Rafsanjani was credited with rebuilding Iran’s war-torn infrastructure. Being the first pro-business president since the revolution, Rafsanjani built an entirely new middle class around his presidency – many of whom are the leaders of industry in the country to this day.
Speaking to bne IntelliNews, one CEO who declined to be named said of the former president that, “Iran has lost a towering figure, and with his help we managed to rebuild our country”. “He was the first stablising economic figure in the [Islamic] Republic… his loss could lead us to very turbulent waters,” he warned.
However, in the years after his presidency ended in 1997 with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rafsajani fell out of the mainstream of the politics, with the two foes firing barbs in each other’s direction on several occasions.
Rafsanjani’s bid to run in the 2013 presidential election as a reformist candidate was thwarted by the powerful Guardian Council, though in recent years he remained central to the pro-business reform movement. With the election of Hassan Rouhani as president in that year, Rafsanjani was seen as an advisor to the younger Rouhani.
In his later years, Rafsanjani was also credited with pushing for better relations with the West, including being a vocal proponent of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which allowed the nuclear sanctions to start being lifted from the beginning of last year.
As a part of his stance on opening up the Iranian economy over the years to foreign direct investment, Rafsanjani has sometimes been wrongly linked with investments in everything from burger chains to airlines to newspapers, to name just a few of the rumours swirling around Tehran. Even so, he was wealthy; in the latter years of his life, Rafsanjani’s net worth was believed to be in excess of $1bn, according to sources inside Iran and Forbes magazine.
Following his death, all eyes will be on the cleric’s five children to see whether they can keep the dynasty going.