News Brief: On January 8, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died of a heart attack in Tehran at the age of 82. An influential cleric and politician, Rafsanjani was the chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, a body that mediates between the parliament and the hardline watchdog Guardian Council.

Rafsanjani’s death was a rare moment of unity in the Islamic Republic as leaders from all across the political spectrum mourned his sudden passing. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Rafsanjani’s demise was very hard to bear and praised their cooperation and friendship for the past 59 years.     

Messages of condolence also poured in from around the world, including from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Iraqi President Muhammad Fuad Masum, and senior Afghan, Pakistani and Gulf officials. The representative of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Movement in Tehran, Nasser Abu Sharif, described the death of “an age-old friend of Imam Khomeini and a pillar of the Islamic Revolution’s struggles” as a great loss.  

Comment:

Rafsanjani was one of Iran’s most influential leaders since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and his death will have significant yet unpredictable implications on Iran’s domestic politics. He was a close confidant of Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, served as president for two consecutive terms from 1989 to 1997, and headed Iran’s Expediency Council at the time of his death.

Compared with other Iranian hardline clerics, he was relatively supportive of Iran’s engagement with the West and neighboring countries. Since 2009 controversial presidential elections that triggered the largest anti-regime protest movement in the Islamic Republic, Rafsanjani had been a vocal supporter for Iran’s so-called reformists and moderates. He played an instrumental role in President Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 presidential elections.  His death will weaken President Rouhani as he seeks reelection in May.

But the former president was far from being a “moderate” as he oversaw the Iranian regime’s acts of repression at home and terrorism around the world.

Under his watch as president, the Iranian regime carried out a series of high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East – including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia by Iran-backed Saudi Hezbollah operatives that killed 19 US Air Force personnel and wounded hundreds more. He was also indicted in the 1994 attack against a Jewish center in Argentina.

American officials had raised concern about Rafsanjani’s involvement in Iranian terrorism even before he became president. A memorandum by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) linked Rafsanjani to the regime’s terrorist plots as early as 1985 when he was the Speaker of Iran’s parliament (Majlis). Another CIA assessment in 1990 titled “Iranian Support for Terrorism: Rafsanjani’s Report Card” said the Iranian regime’s attacks against “enemies of the regime” had increased under Rafsanjani’s first year in the presidential office.

Read daily news briefs and longer analyses at the IranObserved project.