The death of a former president tilts the balance of power in Iran
Posted by fidest press agency su mercoledì, 11 gennaio 2017
TEARS always came easily to the lachrymose ayatollah. But those at a gathering on December 13th seemed more heartfelt than most. He was reading from his own biography of Amir Kabir, the Shah’s chief minister in the mid-19th century, when the blubbing began. Kabir had tried to open the Persian Empire up to the West, he wept, only to be frustrated by the hand of a hardline assassin. “Something suggested he was thinking of his own failed attempts at reform,” says one of those present.With death approaching, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died on January 8th aged 82, may also have had an eye on posterity. Eulogists are already hailing a lifetime spent trying to open Iran and its Islamic revolution to the West. Israeli officials were among the first to label him a moderate. In the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, they sold him arms. In return, he obligingly diverted the proceeds with a nod from America’s Republican leaders to the Contras, Nicaragua’s anti-communist rebels. “If people believe we can live behind a closed door, they are mistaken. We are in need of friends and allies around the world,” he explained. He persuaded Ayatollah Khomeini to end the war with Iraq, and no sooner was he anointed president than he began knocking on the door of Abdullah, Crown Prince of the Islamic Republic’s nemesis, Saudi Arabia, with which he quickly restored relations. American oil majors received invitations to return to Iran, and but for President Bill Clinton’s veto, might have come.Yet Mr Rafsanjani was also a stalwart of the regime, who believed the best way to preserve it was to accommodate outside pressures, not to defy them. Once Ayatollah Khomeini was secure as Supreme Leader, Mr Rafsanjani began eliminating the allies—Marxists, religious nationalists and rival Islamists—who had joined him in toppling the Shah. Abroad, he orchestrated assassinations and the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, said prosecutors in Germany and Argentina. To compensate for the deficiencies of Iran’s air force and navy, he is said to have initiated the country’s nuclear programme. That was for peaceful purposes, he always insisted. But Persian is a famously elastic language, and he was a master of ambiguity. He was dubbed kooseh, the shark, on account of his smooth rubbery skin, which made it hard for him to emulate the pious beards of Iran’s more senior ayatollahs. But he also had a shark’s knack of gobbling up those who stood in his way.He made an unlikely revolutionary. Whereas his peers emerged from the ranks of Iran’s downtrodden, his father was a gentrified pistachio farmer. Mr Rafsanjani briefly studied in Qom, Iran’s holy city, under Ayatollah Khomeini, until the latter fled the Shah’s goons in 1964, but was known for his truancy. If he had a constituency it was less Qom’s seminaries than the gold arcades of Tehran’s bazaar. When Ayatollah Khomenei addressed his followers, he did so from the humble surroundings of his mosque, Hosseiniyeh Jamaran, tucked into the cramped alleyways on Tehran’s heights. When Mr Rafsanjani held court, he sat on a dais in the throne room of one of the Shah’s old downtown emerald palaces.
Iran’s self-interest had a way of becoming his own. He championed opening university education to all. But some noted that the many branches of the Islamic Azad University over which he presided could also be used to build up real estate. Its assets, many acquired from the government as public works, are estimated to be worth tens of billions of dollars. He championed privatisation, but like most Middle Eastern leaders used it to bolster his cronies and closer relatives. He sent his son on missions to Saudi Arabia. As the epitome of the fatted elite, the electorate turned on him when he tried to return as president in 2005. Ironically, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was judged the force for change, and attracted the youth vote.Yet no other Iranian so continuously dominated the revolution. For the Islamic Republic’s first decade (1980-89), he was parliamentary speaker; for the second (1989-97), its president. In Ayatollah Khomeini’s last months, he engineered the removal of the designated next Supreme Leader, and his replacement by a little-known lesser cleric, whom he hoped would be more malleable: Ali Khamenei. Mr Ahmadinejad aside, the presidents that came after him were his protégés. Muhammad Khatami reappointed many of Mr Rafsanjani’s senior ministers to his cabinet in 1997. And at the reformist President Hassan Rouhani’s inauguration in 2013, Mr Rafsanjani was seen beaming even more broadly than the incumbent himself. Mr Rouhani, after all, was his old national security adviser.Mr Rafsanjani’s defeat by Mr Ahmadinejad helped him redeem himself in the eyes of the electorate. A gruelling month after the streets erupted in protests in 2009, he took to the pulpit to denounce Mr Ahmadinejad for rigging elections to secure a second term. “Go,” he cried at Friday prayers, echoing Ayatollah Khomeini’s riposte to the Shah. His daughter, Faezeh, was arrested for joining the protests, as was his son, Mehdi, in 2015. In the 2016 elections Tehran’s middle classes rewarded him by voting him top of their list. A satisfied Mr Rafsanjani pronounced his political mission accomplished. As his star waned, he increasingly sparred with Mr Khamenei, questioning not just the belligerence of Iran’s foreign policy, but the very notion of rule by a single cleric.Some hardliners are already cheering that their most powerful opponent has gone; as chairman of the Expediency Council (a job he held from 1989 until his death) Mr Rafsanjani helped hold the balance between moderates in parliament and the conservative Guardian Council that is meant to ensure that all laws are in conformity with Islam. With his godfather departed and the presidency of Donald Trump imminent, some see Mr Rouhani’s hopes not just of re-election in May but rapprochement with the West as gravely weakened. Others argue, however, that set free from Mr Rafsanjani’s shadow, Mr Rouhani could emerge stronger if he wins his second term in May. Either way, the regime has lost an arch-pragmatist. Without the guile of Mr Rafsanjani, Iran looks likely to become more polarised. (photo: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani) (font: The Economist)