Published:  12:00 AM, 11 January 2017

Rafsanjani's legacy of reform in Iran

The death of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and powerful cleric who was widely considered a leading "moderate" in Iran's polity, is a major blow to the reformists in the country. He had a complex and long tenure as a political leader, emerging as a revolutionary who participated in the overthrow of the Shah regime, heading Parliament in post-Revolution Iran and later being elected twice as President. He rebuilt an economy devastated in the near-decade-long war against Iraq. While in power, Rafsanjani promoted a liberal economic policy that moved Iran away from statism, pursued a realist foreign policy that sought to protect Iranian geopolitical interests and minimise tensions with the West. He was ruthless as an administrator, presiding over the suppression of dissent by arresting and executing several prominent liberals and leftists.

Out of power, Rafsanjani was seen as a powerful moderate cleric with an array of business interests; he enjoyed the support of the bazaar, which acted as a buffer in the war of wits between the reformists and hardliners. In recent years reformists have sought to establish the rule of law and better relations with the West, while hardliners have emphasised the supremacy of theocracy and conservative values, flowing from the guardianship of the clerics who led the revolution. In this milieu, Rafsanjani threw in his lot with the reformists in 2009 following allegations of widespread fraud in the presidential election that was won by former president and hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since then, Rafsanjani went through a difficult political period, as he was seen to be at loggerheads with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who continues to support hardliners.

Thwarted from becoming a presidential candidate in 2013, he rose to prominence again as the centrist candidate Hassan Rouhani he supported emerged victorious in the 2013 elections. Rafsanjani played a pivotal background role in the signing of the landmark nuclear deal between the P-5+1 countries and Iran. Hardliners have shown little inclination to go back on the deal that restricts any weaponising programme by Iran, but Rafsanjani's death and a more volatile world order with the rise of Donald Trump in the U.S. suggest there could be challenges to the deal in the near future. Considering that reformists face stiff challenges presented by the theocrats who control the publicly owned media, the judiciary and other clerical supervisory bodies, they will certainly miss Rafsanjani. Even till the ripe age of 82, he managed to straddle various generations of pre-and post-revolutionary Iran and was a difficult figure for hardliners to overcome politically.

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