The iranian political landscape shakes after the death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

By Chloé de Radzitzky

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died in 82 years Sunday, January 8th of a heart attack in a hospital of Tehran[1]. Millions of citizens gathered last Tuesday to accompany the Iranian former president in his last home[2]. His death represents an upheaval in the Iranian political scene inhabited by factional tensions between the radicals and the reformist and moderate. To understand this change, it is necessary to re-place this character within the official and unofficial networks of the power.

Rafsanjani is an Iranian politician belonging to the old guard. He is considered a one of founding fathers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and was a close friend of Khomeini. Rafsanjani was one of the most influential men of the State until he died. He was president of the country from 1989 till 1997 and was in charge of the economic reconstruction of the country at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. Considered as being part of the reformist political faction, he was also the initiator of the « dialogue of civilizations  » aiming for a rapprochement with the West. After its presidential mandate, Rafsanjani became president of the expediency council (who holds the role of mediator during conflicts between the Majlis- the parliament-,and the Guardian Council, as well as to advise the supreme leader on his constitutional functions) and elected to the assembly of the experts.

The death of this influential man is a hard blow for the alliance between the moderate and reformist factions that allowed the current president Hassan Rouhani to win the elections in 2013. It risks weakening even more the unstable balance of the powers between conservatives and reformists and moderated within the Iranian institutions. These are for moment mainly occupied by the conservatives.

To understand the impact of the former president’s death on the Iranian politics, it is necessary to briefly  describe the mechanisms of the power operating within the country. First of all, it is necessary to note that the political dynamics in the work in Iran are not restrained to official mechanisms established by the constitution. Indeed, as expresses by a RAND corporation report: « the daily dynamics of Iran’s political system do not accurately adhere to the formal structures described in the country’s constitution […Hence] the relative influence an institution has in policymaking depends not only on the constitutional powers ascribed to it but also on the influence of the personality in charge”[3] . Rafsanjani’s death represents not only the loss of a position within the institutions of the power, but also the disappearance of an individual implanted in the unofficial networks of the power[4].

The Iranian system can be described as being a web of personalities connected by informal networks of power[5]. The people and the networks sharing a common vision on what should be the Islamic Republic of Iran collude together under the label of ‘ political factions’. Some individuals occupy key positions there. These people are considered as being the gatekeepers of the system, deciding who can be part of the political elite through elections as well as through appointments[6]. Rafsanjani was a part of it. The potential of influence of these individuals is generally connected to their relations with the Supreme Leader (cfr Khamenei).

Rafsanjani represents an exception to this rule. Indeed, the man was never afraid of opposing the supreme leader because he has its own network independent from Khamenei. This favorable position comes also from its revolutionary background as well as his friendship with Khomeini. Furthermore, Rafsanjani is considered as the kingmaker that helped Khamenei to obtain the title of Supreme Leader. All those elements avoid him to be politically marginalized.

The dynamics of powers working within the Islamic republic of Iran having been described, what will be the impact of the death from a man as influential as Rafsanjani on the factional dynamics? Rafsanjani was a member of the group ‘ pragmatic – conservative ‘. Once the Guardian Council refused his candidature to the presidential elections of 2013, Rafsanjani mobilized its network to make Hassan Rouhani elect against ultra-conservative Mahmmoud Ahmadinejad. According to Mohammad Marandi, professor at the Tehran University, asserts that Rouhani lost a powerful ally on which he could count, making his re-election in May 2016 less certain. Furthermore, the alliance between reformists and moderates lost his powerbase. As explained above, Rafsanjani could be somehow critical towards the regime and the Supreme Leader and without being politically completely marginalized. Nobody seems to be able to take over this role, not even the former president and the successor of Rafsanjani :Mohammed Khatami. Indeed, this one found itself, ‘ politically paralyzed ‘ after the judicial system, dominated by the radicals, forbade the media to publish its opinions and even its photo[7]. Another element risking to come to perturb the balance between factions will also be the appointment of a new president at the head of the Expediency Council. If Khamenei chooses a conservative,it risks to stress the growing imbalance between political factions.

To conclude, the disappearance of Rafsanjani risks to destabilize the alliance between reformist and moderate, as well as to weaken their powers of influence. But the death of the former president Rafsanjani also demonstrates the beginning of the end of an era for the Iranian politics. This one will be marked by the disappearance of the founders of the Islamic republic of Iran. It will be t a progressive transition; and its first chapter will be written during the elections of May, 2017.

[1] Le Monde : http://www.lemonde.fr/disparitions/article/2017/01/08/l-ancien-president-iranien-akbar-hachemi-rafsandjani-est-mort_5059476_3382.html

[2] Arab news: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1037216/columns

[3] Thaler, DE 2010, Mullahs, Guards, And Bonyads : An Exploration Of Iranian Leadership Dynamics, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, p21. Discovery eBooks, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 January 2017.

[4] The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/influential-former-iranian-president-hospitalized/2017/01/08/4ecbbb84-d5bf-11e6-a0e6-d502d6751bc8_story.html?utm_term=.f5636f603dd7

[5] Thaler, DE 2010, Mullahs, Guards, And Bonyads : An Exploration Of Iranian Leadership Dynamics, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, Discovery eBooks, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 January 2017.

[6] Thaler, DE 2010, Mullahs, Guards, And Bonyads : An Exploration Of Iranian Leadership Dynamics, Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, Discovery eBooks, EBSCOhost, viewed 17 January 2017.

[7] Le New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/08/world/middleeast/iran-ali-akbar-hashemi-rafsanjani-dies.html

Le Figaro: http://www.lefigaro.fr/international/2017/01/10/01003-20170110ARTFIG00204-des-centaines-de-milliers-d-iraniens-pleurent-l-ex-president-rafsandjani.php


The Middle East Eye: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/thousands-throng-tehran-funeral-key-reformist-rafsanjani-363020058