Jan. 8 marks one year since the death of Iran’s most influential cleric and former president, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Normally, we at GPF do not pay much attention to individual political leaders since they matter only so much when it comes to geopolitics. But in this case, there is a strange development: Reportedly, President Hassan Rouhani has ordered a review of the investigation into Rafsanjani’s death. Rafsanjani, a founder of the Islamic republic, was found dead in his pool. The explanation given was that the octogenarian leader died of cardiac arrest, but the reports that surfaced in recent weeks quoting family members say his body had unusually high radiation levels.
It is strange (to say the least) that this inquiry into Rafsanjani’s death comes at a time when Iran’s political establishment is trying to move past serious unrest. This story is emblematic of the struggles within the clerical regime, which have only gotten worse over the past decade. These internal differences are being exacerbated by the public uprising. Just as Rouhani’s opponents tried to take advantage of the unrest to weaken the president, his faction appears to be trying to use Rafsanjani’s death as a countermove – among many others.
Though many see Rafsanjani as a symbol of a corrupt political elite, many others see him as a symbol of political moderation. Rafsanjani left an indelible mark on the country’s political system. He was a close associate of the founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the uprising against the shah. After the revolution, Rafsanjani held several pivotal positions in the regime.
Khomeini appointed him to the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which existed from January 1979 to July 1980 with the purpose of transitioning the country from the monarchy to the Islamic republic. During this same period, Rafsanjani also served as interim interior minister. In 1980, he was elected speaker of parliament, a position he held for nine years. When Khomeini died, Rafsanjani played a key role in the succession of the current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Then, from 1989 to 1997, Rafsanjani served two consecutive terms as president.
In 1989, he also assumed the chairmanship of the powerful Expediency Council, which was created to mediate between parliament and the Guardian Council (a 12-member clerical entity with oversight of legislation and the power to vet candidates for public office) and later granted supervisory authority over all three branches of government. Rafsanjani held this position until his death. In addition, from 1983 until his death he served as a member of the popularly elected Assembly of Experts, an 86-member clerical body responsible for electing the supreme leader, holding him accountable and removing him, if and when necessary. From 2007 to 2011 he served as the chairman of the assembly.
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