January 9, 2017 | Policy Brief

Rafsanjani: A Revolutionary, Not a Reformer

January 9, 2017 | Policy Brief

Rafsanjani: A Revolutionary, Not a Reformer

Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died of a heart attack Sunday at age 82. Often described as a “modern mullah” and “moderate voice,” Rafsanjani was more a shrewd survivor and political operative than champion of reform, let alone democracy. His career was ultimately one of unwavering service to the Islamic revolution and its most cynical goals.

In the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Rafsanjani filled a number of key positions in the new regime. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, he served as parliament speaker, and later, deputy commander of the armed forces. Intimately involved in the war’s prosecution, Rafsanjani remains associated with the war’s most contentious moments, including the decision to invade Iraq in 1982, thereby prolonging the war for six bloody years.

In 2015, Rafsanjani revealed that during the conflict, Iran flirted with developing a nuclear weapon for deterrent purposes. During the war, he also traveled to North Korea, cementing a relationship over ballistic missiles, oil, and arms. That relationship carried over into the next decade, when Rafsanjani became Iran’s post-war president.

As president, Rafsanjani established the model for Iranian foreign policy that continues to bedevil the West: offering commercial cooperation while holding fast to revolutionary values. In the early and mid-90s, Iran’s foreign assassination teams ran rampant in Europe, eliminating anti-regime artists, human rights activists, and political dissidents. Under his watch, Iran established itself in Latin America, working with Hezbollah to bomb the Israeli embassy in Argentina in 1992 and a Jewish cultural center in that country’s capital in 1994, which together killed over 100 people.

Concurrently, Tehran expanded its ties with Europe and tightened existing relationships with East Asian countries. Desperate for foreign investment and capital after the war, Iran consistently pretended to be amenable to Europe’s calls for dialogue – without ever providing tangible concessions. While the international community jumped on any sign, real or imagined, of Iran becoming a normal, post-revolutionary state, Rafsanjani used his contacts in the security establishment to prevent any such evolution.

Indeed, Iran in 2017 is arguably the product of two of Rafsanjani’s critical post-war decisions. The first was his support for Ali Khamenei becoming supreme leader when Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolution’s founder, died in 1989. The second was his decision, with Khamenei, to bring the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into the economy, establishing the iron grip it still holds on Iran’s domestic manufacturing, banking, and private sector.

When the relationship between Khamenei and Rafsanjani eventually soured, it was Iran’s already-battered democracy and reform movements that suffered most. With their leaders already killed, driven abroad, put under house arrest, or facing media bans, Rafsanjani positioned himself as the reformists’ savior. Instead, he coopted the movement, emptying it of any potential for meaningful change. All the while, he never parted with the hardest of hardliners on security issues, vocally supporting Tehran’s backing for the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war.

As he is laid to rest Tuesday, Rafsanjani will be the object of an outpouring of official condolences. In U.S. media, attempts have already begun to whitewash his legacy. His own record, however, speaks for itself. A revolutionary who represented the worst of the Islamic Republic: lethal vindictiveness against opponents, terrorism against civilians as a weapon of statecraft, and military adventurism in service of authoritarian regimes. Genuine Iranian democrats and reformers deserve better.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies