Serving the Leviathan

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s life and death highlight what’s at stake in Iran today.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casting his vote in Iran's 2016 elections. Wikimedia Commons

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the chairman of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, died of a heart attack on January 8, 2017. Various factions immediately tried to claim this “pillar of the revolution” in the name of their competing political objectives. The wily politician would have surely recognized this technique of marshaling the spirits of the dead to score points for short-term political gain.

Temperate “principalists” (usulgarayan), technocratic conservatives (eʿtedaliyyun), and reformists (eslahtalaban) — that is, much of the Iranian political class — saw something in the elderly statesman’s legacy worth appropriating. In this way, his death mirrors his life: during his sixty-plus years of political activity, he became many things to many people, while his ultimate objectives often remained opaque, if not virtually impossible to discern.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others often painted this postrevolutionary pragmatist as a corrupt and arrogant patrician who had cast aside revolutionary austerity in favor of decadent opulence. The accusation resonated far beyond Ahmadinejad’s supporters, aligning with popular slogans that denounced the two-time president as “Akbar Shah” (meaning King Akbar, Great Shah) and compelling ordinary citizens to scrawl dozd (thief) on many of his campaign posters during the 2005 presidential campaign. He was also known to many as “the shark” (kuseh) on account of his inability to grow a fully fledged beard, though others felt it described his political modus operandi to a tee.

By 2009, however, he seemed to have aligned himself with the Green Movement, drawing closer to the reformists he once opposed. His intermittent criticisms of the Ahmadinejad government endeared him to many, who began to see him as one of the few establishment voices willing to openly defy the administration and by extension, his old ally, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He became inextricably linked with the trope of “moderation,” a powerful idea in a country on the precipice, especially after the UN imposed sanctions of 2006.

Many others remained skeptical, however, unable to forget his reputation as an arch-Machiavellian. They recycled urban legends about his family’s wealth, reinforcing his image as a power-obsessed wheeler-and-dealer.

Resisting the Shah

Born in 1934, Akbar Hashemi Bahremani grew up on his family’s small farm in the village of Bahreman in the Nuq district of Rafsanjan, Kerman province. At the behest of his father, he studied in a traditional maktab, but was still expected to help tend to the animals and orchards in a region renowned for its prized pistachio. His paternal uncle was a cleric who often took to the village pulpit, and at the age of fourteen, he left for Qom to study at the Shiʿi seminary, the chief center of Islamic learning in Iran.

Through the Maraʿshi brothers (Akhavan-e Maraʿshi), Kazem and Mehdi, fellow Rafsanjanis, with whom he lived for a number of years, Akbar quickly came to know Seyyed Ruhollah Khomeini, then a relatively junior mojtahed and esteemed teacher of philosophy and mysticism. In Rafsanjani’s memoir, The Period of Struggle, he recalls how he was immediately captivated by the “majesty” of Khomeini’s visage and demeanor. Thus began an extremely close and fruitful relationship that would last the remainder of Khomeini’s lifetime. Indeed, Rafsanjani’s final resting place is alongside his political and spiritual patron.

In Qom, Rafsanjani rapidly got involved in political life and activism and found himself attracted to the militant Devotees of Islam (Fadaʾiyan-e Islam), led by Seyyed Mojtaba Mirlowhi, better known as Navvab-e Safavi or “Prince of the Safavids,” whose meetings he would attend at every opportunity. The group tried to convince the Qom seminary to agitate for a strict and unforgiving nomocratic order, but with little success. Under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Boroujerdi, the overwhelming majority of the Qom seminary rejected the message of the Fadaʾiyan, at one point running them out of town.

Rafsanjani was studying in Qom during the years of anticolonial fervor after Prime Minister Mosaddeq nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (BP). He encountered Mosaddeq’s one-time clerical ally, Ayatollah Seyyed Abolqasem Kashani, who became one of the Fadaʾiyan’s initial patrons. Kashani eventually turned on Mosaddeq, and, in August 1953, a joint CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup d’état ousted the prime minister.

After the revolution, even while expressing his support for the national movement, Rafsanjani blamed Mosaddeq’s National Front and the communist Tudeh Party for their role in weakening the seminary during this period. But he still recalled with pride how the former prime minister contributed to printing and distributing his translation of The Journey of Palestine, a translation of a popular book on Palestine written in Arabic by Akram Zwayter, a Jordanian ambassador to Tehran. Published in semi-illicit form in 1961, this book marked the beginning of a long career in which he became the most prolific statesman-cum-author of the postrevolutionary era.

In 1955, Navvab was executed by firing squad, but vestiges of the Fadaʾiyan persisted, creating a vital network of clerical and lay activists in the country’s mosques and bazaars. Rafsanjani became an important organizer inside the country, following Khomeni’s exile in 1964. In January 1965, he was arrested by the Shah’s infamous secret police, SAVAK, for his role in the assassination of the pro-American premier, Hassan ʿAli Mansur. Later recollections by members of the Islamic Coalition Society have since admitted it was Rafsanjani who supplied the weapon. From 1958 until the revolution he was arrested on several occasions. He persisted in his activism despite the abuse and torture he suffered at the hands of the SAVAK, publishing illegal periodicals and distributing Khomeini’s communiqués from Najaf. It was also in 1958 that he married ʿEffat Maraʿshi, the daughter of a fellow cleric from Rafsanjan. His companion of almost sixty years, she would come to exude a formidable matriarchal presence on the Iranian political scene throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Rafsanjani also managed to travel to the United States and Japan during these years. Many regard the latter as especially formative for his worldview and proclivity toward the seemingly indigenous, albeit technologically advanced, version of modernization he would seek to exact during his own time in power. He also penned a volume on the nationalist icon Amir Kabir (who died in 1852), who tried to streamline the Qajar court’s expenditures, consolidating the weak Iranian state in Tehran while importing technical and military know-how. That Rafsanjani died on the anniversary of Amir Kabir’s murder has only fueled the flood of hagiographies.

Internal Divisions

On February 5, 1979, Rafsanjani made his first public appearance facing the world’s media with Khomeini during Mehdi Bazargan’s introduction as prime minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government. He began his government apprenticeship as deputy interior minister, and soon found common ground with another junior minister, Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who held the same role in defense. More importantly, Rafsanjani also served on the revolutionary council, a secretive body dominated by clerics loyal to Khomeini that was created in lieu of a legislative branch of state.

Rafsanjani and Khamenei were on a pilgrimage to Mecca when they learned that radical students, who called themselves the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, had overrun the United States embassy on November 4, 1979. They had by this time become leading officials of the Islamic Republic Party (IRP), and Bazargan’s resignation thrust both men into the limelight. Rafsanjani took over the interior ministry and organized the first presidential elections of 1980. In the spring of that year, he was elected to the Majlis (parliament) and became speaker, a post he turned into a personal stronghold for most of the following decade.

Rafsanjani remained steadfastly loyal to Khomeini and led the clerical front that ultimately marginalized competing revolutionary organizations in the early 1980s. But their relationship was not always easy. Together with Khamenei, Rafsanjani lobbied Khomeini to allow clerical candidates into the first presidential election; his mentor’s refusal paved the way for the victory of layman Abolhasan Bani-Sadr. Only after much of the IRP leadership was killed in the Hafte Tir bombing did Khomeini relent and allow Khamenei to run for president in the summer of 1980.

They also seem to have disagreed about the war with Iraq. According to various sources, including Khomeini’s son Ahmad, the Grand Ayatollah wanted to bring the conflict to an end after taking back the southwestern city of Khorramshahr in April 1982, but Rafsanjani, among others, prevailed on him to prepare an offensive into Iraqi territory.

As the 1980s progressed, Rafsanjani’s role within the state system far surpassed his formal title of parliamentary speaker. In international settings, he was treated like the state’s foremost figure. The West — including the Reagan administration — relied on him to end kidnappings in Lebanon, and he became known as the real power behind the scenes.

By 1985, the fervent anti-Americanism he had previously displayed gave way to the realization that a tactical accommodation with the “Great Satan” was necessary. In a risky and ultimately unsuccessful move, he agreed to hold talks with a delegation led by national security adviser Robert McFarlane, which surreptitiously visited Tehran in October 1986 with much-needed weapons for the war effort. The Iran-Contra revelations severely embarrassed both Reagan and Rafsanjani, and the whole affair had major repercussions for the domestic scene. Nevertheless, two decades later, the Rafsanjani clan published a book including the delegation’s fake passports and the inscribed Bible Reagan gave to Rafsanjani to underscore the cooperation between these erstwhile adversaries.

Rafsanjani was at the heart of several crucial developments during the last years of Khomeini’s life. Many believe he took part in the efforts lead by Ahmad Khomeini and minister of intelligence, Mohammad Reyshahri, to persuade the revolutionary leader to withdraw his support for his designated successor, Hossein ʿAli Montazeri. He certainly had motivation: Montazeri’s relative and close associate, Seyyed Mehdi Hashemi, and his people were responsible for leaking the details of McFarlane’s visit. In early 1988, Rafsanjani had to navigate a major internal crisis when Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi resigned and noted — in a secret letter to Khamenei — that other figures, including Rafsanjani, had gravely eroded his authority.

That same year, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing almost three hundred civilians. Rafsanjani gloomily indicated during a Friday prayer speech that the tragedy was not an accident and warned that the United States would now intensify its involvement in the Iran-Iraq conflict. This likely contributed to Khomeini’s acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 598, which initiated the ceasefire between the two countries and which he famously compared to drinking a “poisoned chalice.”


Following the Iran-Iraq War and the death of the revolutionary patriarch in June 1989, many wondered if the revolutionary state and its institutions could survive without the uniquely charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini. Even before his death, the ruling establishment proved vulnerable as militant groups such as the People’s Mojahedin Organization and the Forqan, which opposed the political clerisy’s ascent, had assassinated several senior figures in the regime. Khamenei and Rafsanjani both survived attempts on their lives in this period, ensuring that these two friends would decisively shape the post-Khomeini political order.

Rafsanjani played a key role in elevating Khamenei as Khomeini’s successor, but the more intimate details of his lobbying have yet to be fully revealed. It occurred as the Iranian elite was reeling, both politically and emotionally. Khomeini’s death came after a period of incapacitation, but it nevertheless caught senior state figures unprepared. As a result, the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body in charge of selecting and supervising the guardian jurist (vali-ye faqih), had to decide how best to handle the succession. Rafsanjani took to the podium and declared that Khomeini had stated his preference for Khamenei, despite his lack of clerical rank and authority. The latter was not an Ayatollah, let alone a marjaʿ al-taqlid (source of emulation or Grand Ayatollah).

Khamenei’s accession unfolded in tandem with major constitutional amendments and changes in the revolutionary state’s institutional structure. The position of vali-ye faqih (often referred to nowadays as the “supreme leader”) was radically revised. No longer was his capacity to act as a source of emulation for the faithful, namely the criterion of marjaʿiyyat a prerequisite for the office. Instead, Khamenei had an “absolute mandate” to rule. At the same time, the office of prime minister was abolished, leaving a directly elected president, which Rafsanjani promptly assumed. These moves quickly consolidated power between the longstanding allies.

At this moment, Rafsanjani was at the peak of his powers. Many have speculated that he placed his ally in this role because he was counting on Khamenei’s lack of religious credentials and limited influence among the clergy, to keep him relatively weak. Arguably, it was a calculation that would come back to haunt him in the last decade of his life.

His two presidential terms have become associated with the period of the nation’s reconstruction. In the first few years, his partnership with Khamenei proved most efficacious. First in the 1990 Assembly of Experts’ elections — but most decisively in the 1992 Majles elections — they used the guardian council’s arrogation of the prerogative to supervise elections and thereby disqualify candidates to rapidly marginalize the so-called Islamic left, which included groups like the Association of Combatant Clerics, the so-called Imam’s Line, and the Mojahedin Organization of the Islamic Revolution. All of whose members had been Ayatollah Khomeini’s stalwart supporters and advocated for anti-imperialism and a radical foreign policy, state control of the economy, and the egalitarian redistribution of wealth.

In response to the country’s very real internal and external economic and political challenges, Rafsanjani and Khamenei conspired to cast aside the Left. Thus, in 1992, they either saw disqualified or campaigned against a raft of sitting MPs and left-leaning regime loyalists, including Behzad Nabavi, Asadollah Bayat, Hadi Ghaffari, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, and the infamous Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali. In fact, only 20 percent of incumbents earned reelection that year.

Consequently, the traditional right dominated the Fourth Majles, adding to the duo’s firm grip on the intelligence and security apparatuses, the state institutions regulating the Shiʿi clergy, the levers of economic power and patronage — including the ministry of petroleum — and a vast network of religious endowments. Despite starting from a position of weakness, Khamenei began to strengthen his hold on economic and military power. In Rafsanjani’s second term, a mild rivalry started to color their relationship.

With the Left on the sidelines, Rafsanjani pursued what amounted to a neoliberal agenda of privatization and structural adjustment. He also created a regional détente with the Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which had bankrolled Saddam Hussein’s war effort with US support. Journalist Mohammad Quchani approvingly called Rafsanjani’s tenure the era of “depoliticization,” where “expertise” firmly supplanted “commitment.” Technocratic competency and state-directed economic liberalization without corresponding political reforms became the order of the day. Saʿid Hajjarian — a former intelligence officer who became a preeminent reformist strategist — recalled a meeting with Rafsanjani in which the president disdainfully shrugged off the very notion of political development, a euphemism for “democratization.”

But after ejecting much of the Islamic left from the ranks of government, Rafsanjani was himself forced to cede primacy over the cultural and intellectual spheres to the traditional right. His brother Mohammad had to give up his long-standing control of state radio and television, while the future president Mohammed Khatami publicly resigned from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, replaced by arch-conservative Ali Larijani (who has since joined the ranks of centrist principalists).

The traditional right’s own predominantly mercantilist interests often conflicted with Rafsanjani’s efforts at economic liberalization. As a result, he had to pursue a more modest reform program. Resistance from below also appeared. In 1992, a tentative subsidy reform on foodstuffs and energy — which would only be implemented, ironically, under the Ahmadinejad government — coincided with inflation hovering around 50 percent, leading to tumultuous provincial bread riots.

Moreover, the privatizations that did take place were far from straightforward. Selling shares to para-statal and quasi-statal organizations sparked allegations of crony capitalism and corruption that the Fourth Majles eventually had to redress through legislation, even if the issue was never satisfactorily resolved. Moreover, one of Rafsanjani’s key allies, Gholam Hossein Karbaschi — mayor of Tehran from 1989 to 1998 — played a crucial role in the capital city’s “urban renewal.” He sold off state-owned land below market value to the connected and well-heeled and exempted large developers from zoning laws, creating a speculative real-estate boom in which certain segments of the political and economic elite were seen to massively profit.

Rafsanjani also helped create the Islamic Free University, which provided higher education to hundreds of thousands of students unable to enter the state system because of the competitive national examinations. Nevertheless, the university has been criticized for introducing market logic into education and thus exacerbating existing class divisions.

As Kaveh Ehsani writes, the Rafsanjani administration had decided that “the Islamic Republic needed to first create its own loyal, Islamic (but neoliberal) middle class.” Rafsanjani, however, ultimately failed to develop an entrepreneurial class that could fully implement his neoliberal agenda. Attempts to do so — particularly through his half-hearted wooing of expatriate businessmen who had fled on the eve of the Islamic Republic — were largely met with scorn. The Executives of Reconstruction Party, heavily populated by the president’s kin, including his outspoken daughter Faʾezeh, would belatedly attempt to consolidate this new technocratic order in 1996.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was invited by the government as a quid pro quo for its services during the war, to help reconstruct the country’s severely depleted infrastructure. Khamenei shrewdly capitalized on this development to augment his institutional power.

This period also saw a slew of intellectuals, writers, and activists assassinated, arrested, and/or tortured. The long list even extends into the Khatami era and includes ʿAli Akbar Saʿidi Sirjani, Faraj Sarkuhi, Shapur Bakhtiar — the Shah’s last prime minister, who had tried to oust the Islamic Republic with Saddam Hussein’s support — and Sadeq Sharafkandi, secretary-general of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. These killings have been strongly linked to the Iranian security apparatus, but the extent of Rafsanjani’s involvement remains unclear. Regardless, his objective of consolidating the regime he had been instrumental in building extended — with or without his direct participation — into neutralizing, by any means, dissenting and subversive voices.

Between the Establishment and Reform

When Mohammad Khatami became president in the June 1997 elections, many observers — including Rafsanjani — were surprised. In fact, the departing president would eventually admit that he had voted for Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, the establishment candidate. Nor was he temperamentally disposed to the ethos of the emerging “reformist” camp, which rallied around Khatami. Their emphasis on political, rather than economic, change and openness in the media and intellectual spheres starkly contrasted with the ambitions and priorities of his own administration.

In fact, between 1997 and 2001, the former president tilted more toward the conservatives, when the right wing became concerned the reformist coalition was taking control of the chief reins of government. In 2000, Rafsanjani ran for parliament in Tehran and sparked a major political crisis. He initially did not rank among the first thirty seats, but was reinstated after a known dissident was disqualified. The media waged a campaign against what they regarded as brazen interference, and Rafsanjani relinquished his seat at a high cost to the Khatami front.

Entrenched as leader of the expediency council — a body whose influence grew in periods of mediation between parliament and the guardian council — Rafsanjani effectively helped stymie the reformist-dominated Sixth Majles, repeatedly kicking key reforms into the long grass. As a result, the public grew disenchanted with the reformers, seeing them as incapable of implementing their program.

In 2005, Rafsanjani once again ran for president, arguing that only he could fix a deadlocked political system. His quixotic campaign used roller-skating young women to hand out posters to bemused drivers in Tehran. But Ahmadinejad’s insurgent candidacy derailed his plans and forced an unprecedented run-off. Rafsanjani scrambled and succeeded in winning the support of many moderates, dissidents, and artists, including the late ʿAbbas Kiarostami, who warned of a Chirac-Le Pen scenario.

When the veteran candidate appeared at Tehran University to this end, he responded to students chanting the name of Akbar Ganji — an imprisoned journalist and public intellectual, who had famously characterized Rafsanjani as Iran’s very own Cardinal Richelieu — by saying conditions in prisons today were far better than under the Shah’s regime. In his final televised campaign interview, he unpersuasively apologized for not holding events outside Tehran in what appeared to be a last-ditch pledge to improve the plight of the neglected provinces.

His defeat — which he half-heartedly attributed to security forces’ interference — effectively aligned him with the reformist camp he had previously been at odds with. By 2006, he recognized that Ahmadinejad threatened both the Iranian state and the fragile détente with the West that he and Khatami had laboriously engineered. For the last decade of his life, he would repeatedly call for moderation, speaking out against excesses and cautiously supporting Mir-Hossein Mousavi in the 2009 elections.

Despite warning Khamenei about possible tampering on the eve of the vote and using his Friday prayer address to call for the release of scores of reformists in July 2009, Rafsanjani managed to keep his place within the state apparatus. Rather than directly challenge Khamenei as Mousavi and Karroubi would — he retained his position as head of the expediency council.

During the second Ahmadinejad administration, Rafsanajani stayed in the media spotlight, published his much-anticipated annual volumes of political diaries, and continued to lobby at the regime’s highest levels. Despite having few obvious cards to play, Rafsanjani drew on his myriad relationships across ministries, economic institutions, political factions, the bazaar, the clergy, and even the IRGC. He also compelled his son, Mehdi, to return home and face a jail sentence so that opponents couldn’t use the charge that his child was abroad and in the pay of foreigners against him politically.

Transformation or Rebranding?

In 2013, after remaining on the fence until the last hours of the registration window, Rafsanjani announced his bid for president without securing the customary approval from Khamenei, who rebuffed his attempts to discuss the matter. The guardian council rejected him on health grounds, paving the way for his protégé Hassan Rouhani, whom Rafsanjani had persuaded not to drop out, to carry the centrist ticket and win in the first round.

Even in his final years, after he had lost many of the institutional levers he had once wielded so dexterously, Rafsanjani managed to interject himself at crucial political moments and tilt the balance of forces in one direction or another. These interventions were not without significance or merit. His continued support for Rouhani and the nuclear accord with the P5+1 helped alleviate the atmosphere of securitization, economic distress, and growing militarization that had characterized the Ahmadinejad years. When he decried the Western sanctions that “had broken the back” of the nation, he belittled the conservative attempts to portray the accord as a sellout.

In recent years, prominent intellectuals like Akbar Ganji and Sadeq Zibakalam have debated whether Rafsanjani’s apparent “conversion” to reform represented a truly genuine transformation or another example of his essential Machiavellianism. But a more pertinent question would be what opportunities for contestation and increasing democratic accountability and pluralism were engendered as a result of his interventions and the unforeseen repercussions of elite competition and cleavage.

On the one hand, his role as mediator between the ruling establishment and the reformists in these final years played an important part in assuaging the contradictions between popular expectations and the reality of regime governance. Since the late 1990s elite competition has taken place on the terrain of electoral and constitutional politics, and Iran’s sizeable urban population and middle classes were periodically summoned to provide momentum to their own mediated demands. A process that also harbored the potential for sparking deeper political transformation, and a renegotiation of the social contract defining the relationship of government and the governed.

In the short term, reforms included resolving the nuclear impasse; returning to competent, technocratic economic management; lowering inflation and youth unemployment; releasing Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Zahra Rahnavard; and loosening political and cultural restrictions.

But in the long term, the reformist horizon strove for something like a new constitutional settlement that would place the supreme leader under close supervision — if not call for his direct election — hold the security apparatuses accountable, and reverse the guardian council’s powers over elections. Reformist activists, as well as political currents with negligible official representation, saw Rafsanjani’s funeral procession as one more opportunity to articulate these manifold demands, proving even his posthumous relevance to the political balance of power.

Rafsanjani initiated a deeply personal form of statecraft, one that could not bring about a structured perestroika, but did enable the Islamic Republic to survive crises and challenges. Rafsanjani and Khamenei’s chief objective had always preserving the regime they helped build. The question of how to achieve this — and their material and institutional stake in it — rankled their relationship in later life and still divides the country.