Death in the family

Like any mostly closed/insulated group of people–Fortune 500 CEOs, Catholic clergy, the mafia, Congress–there are a lot of ways in which Iran’s religious (and increasingly military) ruling class resembles a family. There are a lot of things binding them together: everybody knows each other, they all share some common backgrounds and life experiences, they probably share a a few very basic and very broad set of values, and they have a certain involuntary solidarity that exists even between individuals who can’t stand one another. But like any family, those similarities only go so far. And while outsiders (neocons, for example, who themselves often resemble one of these family-lite groups) tend to see Iran’s ruling class as a monolith, the better to drum up their audience’s fears (and open up its wallets, but I digress), within the club there are people who occupy all sorts of positions on the ideological spectrum. Some even fluctuate ideologically over the course of their lives. Imagine that.

Word broke late morning today (US east coast time) that former Iranian President, and would-be kingmaker, Ayatollah (there’s some question about that) Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had died of a heart attack (it now appears he actually may have had a stroke). Rafsanjani was 82 years old, five years older than Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, yet his death is being framed, not incorrectly, as the loss of an important player in the process of selecting a successor for Khamenei whenever he eventually passes. To be fair, Khamenei has been dying of cancer, so far as we keep being told, for a couple of years now, so the idea that Rafsanjani would outlast him wasn’t totally farfetched. Still, when an 82 year old man dies it’s never really that surprising, is it?

Rafsanjani is an example of the diversity of opinion within the Iranian ruling club and of the possibility that an individual member of that club might change his views over time. He was a top aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and as such one of the true “founding fathers” of the Islamic Republic (he was its first parliament speaker). He succeeded Khamenei as president after shepherding Khamenei’s succession as Supreme Leader through the Assembly of Experts. As president, from 1989 through 1997, he was seen as a hardliner, especially when it came to brutally squashing dissent within Iran and assassinating Iranian dissidents abroad. Yet here’s how his death is being described by American analysts:

Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University, said his death could not have come at a worse time, as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office.

“With what is happening in the U.S. and the possible instability that is going to come in U.S. policy you needed a voice of reason and pragmatism that had some heft to it. He was that voice.”

“Losing that voice is going to make it more likely that any mishap or miscalculation by the Trump team will beget a more unreasonable, more radical, more potentially destructive response by the Iranian regime,” he added.

Rafsanjani’s journey from hardliner to “voice of reason and pragmatism” was, as these things usually are, partly a function of his own transformation and partly a function of the transformation of Iranian politics, where far fewer loud voices question the very nature of the political system today than in the 80s. But there’s a reason why Rafsanjani and Khamenei, who were once pretty close, have spent most of the last eight years in a low-grade political feud, and it’s mostly because Rafsanjani, the one-time hardliner, became the most influential Iranian political figure to question the results of the 2009 election and offer support to the reformist Green Movement. He, and his children, have paid a major political price for that, but Rafsanjani made a comeback of sorts when his protege, the moderate-conservative Hassan Rouhani, won the 2013 election. As Rouhani’s mentor, he was the godfather of the moderate-reformist coalition that came together to support Rouhani and is the counterweight to Khamenei’s hardline Principlists in Iranian politics. That’s why his death can accurately be described as a “blow” to reformers.

Hassan Rouhani (left) and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (via Middle East Institute)

To be sure, Rafsanjani’s reformist leanings didn’t come out of a place of doubt about the Islamic Republic; rather, he saw moderate reform as the only hope for preserving the basic framework of the republic moving forward (his Principlist opponents would argue that the only way to preserve the framework is not to reform it at all). His death probably doesn’t mean much for this year’s presidential election, though it could be harder to keep moderates and reformists working together in the future without his influence (that’s pretty much all on Rouhani’s shoulders now), but it will have an impact on the selection of a new Supreme Leader. Rafsanjani had been working within the Assembly of Experts to try to replace Khamenei with someone more moderate (Rouhani, maybe, though that seems like a real long shot) or even, at one point, with a council rather than another individual. Rouhani also sits on the Assembly of Experts, having been elected to it last year, but he didn’t have Rafsanjani’s stature even back when his popularity was at its peak, and his popularly is definitely not at its peak anymore. Moderates have definitely lost a huge part of their leverage in the succession process.

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