Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and a founder of the Islamic republic, who navigated the opaque shoals of his country’s theocracy as one of its most enduring, wiliest and wealthiest leaders, died on Sunday in Tehran. He was 82.
His death was announced by Iranian state television.
As his career seesawed through periods of revolutionary zeal and confrontation with powerful conservative rivals, he was portrayed as a Machiavellian and often ruthless player in the power struggles among Iran’s elite factions, protected by his close association with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader who overthrew the shah in 1979.
He was more of a pragmatist inclined toward economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, than Khomeini, which led to accusation of corruption in amassing his fortune and his readiness for harsh tactics to deal with dissent at home and abroad.
Argentina has accused Mr. Rafsanjani and other senior Iranian figures of complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died. In 1997, a German court concluded that the highest levels of Iran’s political leadership had ordered the killing five years earlier of four exiled Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. The events added weight to American assertions that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism. Mr. Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997.
Yet many Western analysts believed that he sought a less confrontational relationship with the United States than other powerful figures in the Iranian hierarchy, for whom hostility toward Washington was a touchstone of ideological purity.
Mr. Rafsanjani, for instance, is credited with suggesting that “Death to America” be dropped from the litany of slogans at Tehran’s Friday prayers, a weekly moment of fervor in Iran’s political and religious calendar. His clout declined during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from 2005 to 2013. A populist conservative, Ahmadinejad had a strong following among poor Iranians, many of whom resented the affluence of Mr. Rafsanjani.
Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, left, with relatives and mourners around his coffin during a memorial ceremony
He was sent from home to study theology in the Muslim holy city of Qum, Iran, where he became a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini when he was four years old. Rafsanjani is the last surviving member of an inner circle of Islamic revolutionaries active during Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile from 1964 to 1979, fighting an often bloody cat-and-mouse contest with the notorious Savak secret police loyal to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
From 1963 to 1978, Mr. Rafsanjani was jailed five times for his opposition to the shah, but he remained in close contact with exiled clerics, including Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in Najaf, Iraq.
During that period, in 1962, he married Effat Marashi, whose family included several respected Shiite clerics. They had five children — two daughters, Fatemeh and Faezeh, and three sons, Mohsen, Mehdi and Yaser.
In the turbulence after Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, Mr. Rafsanjani was elected to Parliament, known as the Majlis, and became its speaker, serving in that position until 1989.In many accounts of the maneuvering after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Mr. Rafsanjani was credited with promoting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, possibly in the mistaken belief that he would prove a pliant figure.
Instead, Ayatollah Khamenei built his own power base. But Mr. Rafsanjani’s back-room dealings — often trading on his close relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini — earned him the nickname “kingmaker.”
During his presidency, Mr. Rafsanjani faced the challenge of reconstruction after the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While his economic liberalism and privatization policies were popular among Iran’s entrepreneurial classes, many poor Iranians perceived no improvement in their plight.As president, Mr. Rafsanjani showed little tolerance of dissent. While he sought improved ties with the West, he insisted on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear program and did not lift a fatwa declared by Ayatollah Khomeini that enjoined Muslims to kill the writer Salman Rushdie.
Moreover, critics asserted that the Rafsanjani presidency coincided with the spread of corruption and the infiltration by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of important economic enterprises.
By 2013, Mr. Rafsanjani was said to have built a family business empire that owned Iran’s second biggest airline, exercised a near monopoly on the lucrative pistachio trade and controlled the largest private university, Azad. The family’s business interests also included real estate, construction and oil deals. In 2003, Forbes magazine said Mr. Rafsanjani’s personal wealth exceeded $1 billion.
Mr. Rafsanjani leading worshipers in Friday prayers at Tehran University in 2009. Credit Fars News Agency, via Reuters
The King Maker Years
In 2005, Mr. Rafsanjani sought to run for the presidency again but lost in a runoff to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose tenure until 2013 was marked by hard-line nuclear policies, increasingly strained ties with the West and a mounting catalog of economic sanctions over Tehran’s efforts to expand its nuclear capability.
In presidential elections in June 2009, Rafsanjani supported the moderate Mir Hussein Moussavi, who lost to Mr. Ahmadinejad. The outcome was widely disputed, and many Iranian protesters died or were detained challenging the authorities in the streets. The protesters included Mr. Rafsanjani’s youngest daughter, Faezeh, who had campaigned for women’s rights and was arrested in large demonstrations against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory.
Mr. Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by mounting disputes with the United States and Israel over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its advances in missile technology. In 2011, Iran sided with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria during the Arab Spring, along with the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon, setting Tehran against Mr. Assad’s Western adversaries, including the United States.
In 2016, Mr. Rafsanjani polled first in Tehran’s voting for the Assembly of Experts, whose role had assumed greater importance since Ayatollah Khamenei was treated for prostate cancer in 2014.In the manner of Iran’s competing power centers, however, a hard-liner, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who was already the head of the Guardian Council, was elected by the Assembly of Experts as its chairman. The vote signaled new obstacles for the modest changes sought by Mr. Rouhani in running the Islamic republic.
In another controversy, in May 2016, Mr. Rafsanjani was drawn into a ferocious debate over a meeting between his activist daughter, Faezeh, and Fariba Kamalabadi, a leader of the Baha’is, a minority religious group regarded by the clerical hierarchy as impure pagans.Mr. Rafsanjani showed little sympathy for his daughter, calling the Baha’is “heretics” and saying publicly that his daughter had “committed a wrong deed” and should be ashamed of herself.