Former Iranian president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died in hospital in Tehran where he was taken after suffering a heart attack on Sunday, state media has reported.
Rafsanjani, a pragmatist ayatollah considered the country’s second most powerful political figure for much of the Islamic Republic’s history, died in hospital in north Tehran on Sunday, according to local news agencies.
He “died today due to heart complications at the Shohadaye Tajrish hospital”, the semi-official Isna news agency reported. State-run television put political differences aside by displaying a black banner on all its official channels and Hossein Marashi, a close relative of the cleric, said he was scheduled to be buried after a funeral procession on Tuesday. Iran has declared three days of national mourning.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, paid tribute to Rafsanjani as a “companion of struggle” despite differences between them.
“The loss of my companion of struggle, whose cooperation with me dated back 59 years, is difficult and overwhelming,” Khamenei said in a statement quoted by the state broadcaster’s website.
“The different opinions and interpretations at time in this long period could never entirely break up the friendship” between us, he added.
Born on August 25, 1934, the influential Iranian politician and writer was the fourth president of Iran.
Rafsanjani was a founding member of Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
He played an influential role both during anti-Shah struggles before the victory of the Islamic Revolution and afterward through various stages of the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
After the 1979 revolution, Rafsanjani became the country’s first speaker of the parliament, a job he kept for nine years. During the Iran-Iraq war, he was the supreme leader Khomeini’s top representative in the supreme defence council, acting as the de facto commander-in-chief of the Iranian military.
He was elected chairman of the Iranian parliament in 1980 and served until 1989. He assumed office as the Chairman of the Expediency Council in 1989.
When Khomeini died in 1989, Rafsanjani played an instrumental role in the appointment of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the current supreme leader.
While he was in power, however, he was a moderate politician famous for his pragmatism. He served as president for two consecutive terms from 1989 to 1997.
During his leadership, Iran went through an extraordinary transformation as the country focused on post-war construction and industrial revival.
“Rafsanjani was always Iran’s second most powerful figure, even under (late founder of the revolution Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini,” said political analyst Hamid Farahvashian.
Rafsanjani headed the Expediency Council, a body which is intended to resolve disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council. He was also a member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader, Iran’s most powerful figure.
Iran watchers believe that he persuaded Khamenei to back a historic nuclear deal, reached between Iran and six major powers in 2015.
Confrontation with Khamenei
His pragmatic policies – economic liberalization, better relations with the West and empowering Iran’s elected bodies – appealed to many Iranians but was despised by hardliners, and that made a rift grow between him and Khamenei.
He lost a presidential election in 2005 to hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the little-known mayor of Tehran at the time, a defeat that indicated resentment toward Rafsanjani as part of the elite and the perception he served few interests other than his own.
Rafsanjani voiced moderate support for Iran’s Green movement in 2009 while Khamenei stood firm by the then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and denied any allegations of vote rigging.
As a result of his confrontation with Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters in Iran, Rafsanjani’s authority diminished and two of his children were jailed on separate charges. Pro-Khamenei supporters targeted him with a barrage of attacks, often refraining from using his title (ayatollah) in the public press, saying he was no longer loyal to the supreme leader.
The rift between Khamenei and Rafsanjani meant the latter was greatly sidelined in recent years but, until his death, he was the head of Iran’s expediency council, an influential body that mediates between the parliament and the guardian council.
Blow to the reformists
His death will deal a blow to moderates, particularly the current president, Hassan Rouhani, of whom he was a major backer.
“The soul of a giant man of revolution, politics, a symbol of patience and strength, has ascended to skies. #Hashemi-Rafsanjani,” Rouhani tweeted in reaction to Rafsanjani’s death.
“Rafsanjani’s death will weaken Rouhani’s government and will also negatively affect the country’s reformist movement,” Sadeq Zibakalam, a prominent Tehran University professor, told the Guardian in a phone call from the Iranian capital.
“Rafsanjani’s political life can be divided in two parts. In the first part, he was part of the establishment and the country’s political system. Until Imam Khomeini’s death, he had an immense power in Iran.
“But after his time as president and particularly in the past two decades, he lost his influence and only had a ceremonial position. That was because he leaned towards democracy and freedom, which were the primary values of the revolution itself. This earned him a great deal of animosity among radical factions who attacked him and insulted him repeatedly until his death.”
Journalists said his death came in a critic time for Iran.
“His death couldn’t come at a worse time for the country because there are disputes between the current government and the judiciary and Rafsanjani was seen as a mediator.”
“He would advise on how to deal with such situations in the country. With the news of his death many people are in absolute shock.”