Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was once described as a “veteran kingmaker” by the Economist. Indeed he was, helping bring Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself to power at the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979 and playing a crucial role in naming current Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader exactly 10 years later.
In the early 1990s, Rafsanjani personally chose Hasan Nasrallah to become secretary-general of Hezbollah — which made him “maker” of three of the most controversial Shiite figures in modern history. He nevertheless failed to secure his own re-election as president of Iran —twice, in 2005 and 2013.
Former Iranian President Rafsanjani, one of the last surviving veterans of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, died at a hospital in northern Iran on Sunday, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 82. President Hasan Rouhani declared three days of national mourning and state-run newspapers dedicated full-page spreads covering the life of a man who was described as economically liberal, politically authoritarian, and philosophically conservative — all in one. He was too liberal to be considered a conservative, too conservative to become a liberal, making him a rare figure in modern Iranian history.
Rafsanjani was born in 1934 into a well-to-do family of pistachio farmers in the village of Ghahraman in the Kerman Province, southeast Iran. He studied at a religious seminary in Qom, the world’s largest center of scholarship on Shiite Islam, and was persecuted for his religious views during the secular regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi during the 1960s. He supported the 1979 revolution and was voted speaker of the Iranian Majlis (or parliament) during its first session in 1980.
Rafsanjani kept this job for nine full years, becoming a loyalist to the revolution’s architect, Ruhollah Khomeini.
For most of the 1980s, he was also acting commander-in-chief of the Iranian Army and played a crucial role in getting Khomeini to accept a ceasefire with Saddam Hussein in August 1988, ending a brutal eight-year war with Iraq that cost the lives of around 1 million people on both sides of the battle lines.
When Khomeini died in June 1989, then-President Ali Khamenei was promoted to the rank of supreme leader and Rafsanjani was elected as president. He was the fourth president in the republic’s history, holding office from 1989 until 1997.
As president, Rafsanjani peddled an “economy first” policy, promising to bring money for the country’s reconstruction after the guns had fallen silent in the Iran-Iraq War. He favored a free-market economy and called for privatization of state-owned industries, winning praise from the country’s moneyed elite, who saw him as an extension of their own business interests, but he was never popular with the urban poor and residents of rural districts.
Rafsanjani’s enemies accused him of profiteering at the expense of the government — an unjust accusation, given that his wealth was earned during his early years in the construction business during the 1960s. Accusations have been made against Rafsanjani because one of his sons, Muhsen, was contracted to build the Tehran Metro, an accusation that made front page news during the era of his political foe, Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
Rafsanjani sent his political enemies to the gallows, along with a colorful assortment of people he did not like — including Shiite clerics, communists, Kurds, drug dealers, and Bahais. He has also been accused of using hit squads to hunt down foes in Europe. In one of his sermons at Tehran University, Rafsanjani supported the use of force to suppress student demonstrations.
He nevertheless sought to minimize conflict with Iran’s enemies, offering to help Saddam Hussein rebuild Iraq after the 1991 invasion of Kuwait. He also tried to open channels with the US, inviting American oil company Conoco Philips to develop an Iranian oilfield, a request turned down by then president Bill Clinton.
Rafsanjani’s career was no less controversial than his years in power. In 2000, he was elected as an MP in the very same Majlis he had headed 20 years earlier, only to resign before he was sworn in, saying that he could serve the nation better in other capacities.
From 2007-2011, he was elected president of the powerful Assembly of Experts, which would be responsible for selecting a new supreme leader in the event of Ali Khamenei’s death. He was also made chair of a government institution that resolves legislative issues between parliament and the Guardian Council, a constitutionally mandated 12-member body that decides on matters of national security. He ran for president again in 2005, but was defeated by Ahmadinejad. In 2013, when he was disqualified by the Guardian Council; he put his full weight behind incumbent Hasan Rouhani.
On Arab affairs, Rafsanjani raised eyebrows among conservatives in Iran by supporting a Saudi-led initiative in 2002, put forth by then Crown Prince Abdullah, calling for collective Arab peace with Israel in exchange for the return of occupied land to Syria and Lebanon. He nevertheless had previously supported suicide attacks against Israel, notably during the second intifada of 2000, and named his eldest son Yasser in homage to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Among his less well-known victories was winning acceptance of his protégé Hasan Nasrallah, at the time just 32 years old, as secretary-general of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia after the assassination of its former head Abbas al-Musawi in February 1992. Nasrallah won out over older candidates, more senior in the Iran-backed organization and with more political and military experience.
Iranians too young to remember Rafsanjani’s years in power, nevertheless had a lot of respect for him despite the generation gap. Rafsanjani was the only constant in a rapidly changing world for millions of Iranians who associated his name and face with a statesmanship that they could trust and follow — sorely lacking in today’s Iran.
His age and experience gave him an elevated standing in Iranian society, not just as a former head of state but as something of a “wise man” of the Islamic Republic. While Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is too distant to engage with ordinary people, Rafsanjani seemed to be everywhere in recent years. He would show up at mosques, speak at universities, chat with young people. Moreover, he never seemed afraid to voice his criticisms of the government, especially during the era of the thuggish conservative Ahmadinejad, a rival the old kingmaker wrote off as inexperienced and politically immature.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and founding chairman of The Damascus History Foundation. He is a former Carnegie scholar and Research Fellow at St Andrews University.