The death of former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 has been considered by many analysts, around the world, as a loss of a political heavyweight in Iran’s domestic politics. Some portray Rafsanjani as one of the key architects of the Iranian Revolution, next only to its charismatic leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. Others underline his political influence on the technocratic reform in Iran after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Hashemi was admired beyond Iran’s political factions by many among the political elite and important economic players of Iranian society. But Rafsanjani was also given the epithet, “Shark of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. He was despised by many Iranians because of his Machiavellian approach to power and his presumed wealth. Rafsanjani, though, was a respected figure among the Shiite clerics in the holy city of Qom. For all these reasons, Rafsanjani’s sudden death will leave a deep vacuum in Iranian politics that will especially be felt at the high levels of political and economic authority in the country.
Rafsanjani’s death will also have a bearing on the process of nominating the successor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayotallah Ali Khamenei. With Rafsanjani no longer there, the question that remains unanswered is, who will be the guarantor and validator for the clerical establishment and the key legitimator of the Velayat-e Faqih (rule of the jurist). Also, let us not forget that Rafsanjani shaped most of the key institutions of the Islamic Republic in 1979 — from the office of the Leader to the Islamic Revolution’s Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Expediency Council (which he chaired almost from its inception till his death). Rafsanjani leaves behind a complex and contradictory legacy that will remain unpredictable, uncertain and restive for years to come.
Rafsanjani has passed away at a time when much of the Iranian theocracy’s conservative establishment is confronted with the Middle East policies of the new American administration. With Rafsanjani gone, President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet do not command the political heft to caution Iranian hawks and military commanders, who are pushing the country towards extremes. This could destablise the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani’s absence will affect the next presidential elections and make it difficult for Rouhani to get reelected. Rafsanjani’s absence would also have a significant impact on Iran’s foreign policy. With the demise of his mentor and protector, Iran’s president will find it harder than ever to secure the future of the nuclear negotiations with the West and establish cordial ties with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s
principal rival in the Middle East.
With a number of international policy concerns to tackle, the post-Rafsanjani establishment in Tehran needs to search for new options in order to face the harsh critics of Iran in Donald Trump’s top-level national security team. The Trump administration has to confront an Islamic Republic that has become a key player in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Syria, despite the enmity of Saudi Arabia and Israel. Should either of these countries clash with Iran, the stage will be set for a direct military confrontation between Tehran and Washington.
In fact, nearly three weeks after assuming office, Trump issued an executive order targeting Iran. His directive bans people from seven nations, including Iran — this includes some permanent residents as well — from entering the United States. The Trump administration is also renewing the possibility of a violent confrontation with Iran on a questionable pretext — Iran’s testing of conventional missiles.
The current American objections to Iran’s missile testing has to do with a clause in the Resolution of the UN Security Council that “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such missile technology,” until eight years after the implementation of the US-Iran nuclear deal. Hatred towards Iran in the new US administration seems to outweigh all forms of rational diplomacy. It is doubtful, though, that the Trump administration would risk violent action over some perceived violation of a UN resolution — and not over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Let us not forget that none of America’s European allies (or even Japan, Canada and Australia) currently opposes Iran. The only opponents of Iran from which the Trump administration could benefit immediately are Israel, Saudi Arabia, and, to a lesser extent, Qatar and Kuwait. However, since many issues in the conflict between Iran and the US remain unresolved, it would be naïve to think the deal between Iran and the US would endure.
In fact, Trump and his group of advisers are going to be much more forceful on the terms of the Iranian nuclear deal. In that case, all those who believe in a minimum of common sense in global politics sincerely hope that the Trump administration would not end up repeating the errors of the US administration during Iraq’s war with Iran. American autocratism’s new stance comes when the legitimacy of Iran’s traditional religious authorities have been undermined by two developments: The secularisation of Iranian youth and the rise of military leaders who have become powerful players in Iran’s domestic and international politics. But neither Trump, nor Iran’s hawkish leadership are good strategists. If strategy is the art of managing complexity, the fate of the Trump administration and the Iranian military elite could be like that of the blind leading the blind: Both shall fall in the ditch.
Surprisingly, in the last period of his political life, Rafsanjani was among those Iranian leaders who were especially concerned with the rise of the military elite in Iran. Rafsanjani was known as a pragmatic politician during his two consecutive four-year terms as president from 1989 to 1997. But he and his ideas were sidelined, with the help of the Iranian Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards during the 2005-2013 tenure of the populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani knew that an increase in the economic and political footprints of the Revolutionary Guards could make Iran a riskier player in international relations. As Rouhani ends the fourth year of his presidency in June, there is no doubt that the political battle in post-Rafsanjani Iran will overshadow the Iranian-American political confrontation. The ultimate test for Rouhani during the rest of his tenure will be managing the political contradictions in post-Rafsanjani Iran. With reformists now nearly extinct, the only hope is that Rouhani’s cabinet shares more than a few common strands with what was once considered as Rafsanjani’s pragmatic attitude to international and domestic politics.x