January 9, 2017 | The Weekly Standard

The Death of Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a Machiavellian Prince

Co-written by Ali Alfoneh.

Last week Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the principal architect of the Islamic Republic, died of a heart attack at 82. The former parliamentary speaker, two-term president, and chairman of various powerful bodies leaves behind a mixed political legacy.

In his last Friday sermon at Tehran University in 2009, Rafsanjani sharply criticized the contested presidential election in which his bête noire, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was re-elected, and emphasized the need for “respecting the law,” “regaining pubic confidence,” “freeing political prisoners,” and securing “freedom of speech in the mass media.”

Rafsanjani had little or no regard for those principles before 2009. He was the dark prince, who through stratagem, ruthlessness, and terror rose to the apex of power. Only when equally ruthless men dethroned and marginalized him did he become a proponent of political freedom.

Rafsanjani was born in 1934 in Bahreman, a village in southeastern Iran, into an affluent family of landowners and pistachio merchants. At 14 he moved to the holy city of Qom for studies under leading clerics, including Ruhollah Khomeini. It was in Qom, in 1957, that he got to know Ali Khamenei, an impoverished student a few years his junior, who often would borrow money from the rich Rafsanjani.

As the dual waves of nationalism and communism swept over the Middle East in the aftermath of the Second World War, the young Rafsanjani politically awakened. He took pride in Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq's nationalization of Iran's oil industry in 1951; he kept quiet, however, when the traditional clergy, fearing the spread of communism, abandoned Mosaddeq and sided with the 1953 military coup, which restored the shah to power.

Khomeini's rebellion against the “White Revolution,” the shah's modernization scheme launched in 1963, radicalized Rafsanjani's politics. For his vanguard, Khomeini mobilized theology students, who in turn became increasingly violent after the shah exiled the ayatollah. Rafsanjani provided the funds for a pamphlet called Enteqam, or Revenge. In January 1965, an Islamic terrorist assassinated Prime Minister Hassan-Ali Mansur. Rafsanjani probably provided the assassin with his pistol.

After being tortured by the secret police, Rafsanjani was released from prison. Jailed repeatedly in the 1960s and 1970s, the cleric used his prison time to expand his contact with militants. To escape the shah's surveillance and to build a network abroad, Rafsanjani voyaged extensively in the 1970s, not only to meet Khomeini in Iraq and fellow Islamic revolutionaries in Syria and Lebanon, but to Eastern and Western Europe, North America (he claims he traveled through 20 states, but there are no photographs to document his presence in the United States), and the Far East, easily making him one of the most well-traveled mullahs.

The revolution of 1979 led to his meteoric rise. Rafsanjani became a member of the Council of the Islamic Revolution, which was Khomeini's shadow government. When Khomeini appointed Mehdi Bazargan his first prime minister, it was Rafsanjani who read aloud the ayatollah's decree on television.

Bazargan resigned when Khomeini endorsed the seizure of the American embassy. Rafsanjani and Khamenei were then on pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon his return, Rafsanjani praised this “revolutionary act.” Later, he tried to distance himself from the attack.

Rafsanjani's “forgetfulness” also flared over the 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran. The eight-year war proved to be, as Khomeini described it, “a divine blessing.” It gave birth to a managerial class of revolutionaries capable of handling the demands of an immense, savage conflict. Parliamentary speaker Rafsanjani emerged as the war's overseer, with Hassan Rouhani his point man in parliament. Both men advocated continuation of the conflict after Iranian forces expelled the Iraqi Army from Iran in 1982; both men later forgot their decision when Iranian forces collapsed in southern Iraq.

In the mid-1980s, Rafsanjani directed the Lebanese Hezbollah to engage in the hostage-taking of Americans and Europeans; with Rouhani again his point man, he used the hostages to acquire arms and spare parts from the United States. In his published daily journal, Rafsanjani mused over America's “helplessness.”

Following the end of the war in 1988, and the death of Khomeini in 1989, Rafsanjani engineered Khamenei's succession as the Guardian Jurist. Lacking charisma and a clerical network, Khamenei seemed harmless and dependent. For a time, the arrangement worked: Rafsanjani got the credit for post-war reconstruction and the initiation of the then-secret nuclear-weapons program, while Khamenei remained a figurehead.

However, Rafsanjani's political opportunism brought him long-term problems. Khamenei grew in office. Equally problematic, Rafsanjani tried to coopt the powerful and hostile Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by giving it the lead in post-war reconstruction. The men who had tenaciously fought the war, and Rafsanjani's authority, now built dams, highways, and hospitals all over country. The corps developed into the largest contractor in Iran. Allied with Khamenei, the guards developed the clout to buy political influence, put members into government, and establish their own theological school.

His power fading, Rafsanjani embraced, and then betrayed, the reform movement around Mohammad Khatami, who became president in 1997. Rafsanjani and Rouhani wanted a Chinese development model—economic growth without political liberalization. They backed Khamenei's brutal methods against the free-speech student movement in 1999.

Rafsanjani's choices cost him dearly among the reformists, who publicly humiliated him during the 2000 parliamentary elections when the mullah failed to win a seat in parliament. Journalist Akbar Ganji took the opportunity to disclose Rafsanjani's involvement in the “chain murder” of Iranian dissidents by the intelligence ministry.

A greater humiliation came in 2005, when Rafsanjani's presidential candidacy tanked, attacked by both reformists and the Revolutionary Guard. He lost to Tehran's former populist mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who accused the mullah of betraying the revolution and amassing great wealth. Khamenei did nothing to stop Ahmadinejad's withering attacks.

When Rafsanjani criticized the results of the contested 2009 presidential election, the regime turned against Khomeini's right-hand man, accusing him of siding with “sedition.” In 2013, Rafsanjani watched his former protégé win the presidential election, where reformists, beaten by Khamenei's police state, embraced Rouhani as the least bad option. Nearly devoured by the revolution that he helped to start, Rafsanjani must have derived considerable satisfaction from watching his Westernized antagonists, who'd once denounced him as evil incarnate, see him as the godfather of their possible salvation.

Rafsanjani leaves behind his politically active family members, who serve as custodians of the statesman's vast archives, including unpublished volumes of his memoirs. Khomeini's most consequential disciple may yet have his final revenge.

Mr. Alfoneh is a Iran researcher in Copenhagen. Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.