Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s fourth president and a towering figure in the country, has died at the age of 82, according to Iranian state media.
For decades, the Shiite Muslim cleric played an outsize role in Iranian politics. An aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the country’s 1979 revolution, Rafsanjani served on the Revolutionary Council that helped transform the newborn Islamic Republic from a monarchy into a theocracy.
During the 1980s, Rafsjani boosted his public profile in weekly sermons to the country and helped guide Iran’s military operations in a costly eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq.
When Khomeini died in 1989, then-President Ali Khamenei was named his successor as supreme leader in Iran, and Rafsjani was elected president.
He served in that role from 1989 to 1997, during which time he embarked on a program of economic reform and insisted on constitutional reforms that gave significantly more executive power to the office of the president.
NPR’s Peter Kenyon reports that Rafsanjani enjoyed a kind of renaissance as an influential reformer late in his political career.
“Rafsanjani tried to run for president again in 2005, but was defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He made another attempt in 2013, but in a controversial move, Iran’s guardian council disqualified him.
“Voters instead chose the candidate most aligned with Rafsanjani’s pragmatic views, Hassan Rouhani. Many Iranians saw Rafsanjani as a mentor to Rouhani, and his influence rose.”
Rafsanjani played a crucial role as a bridge between moderates of modern Iranian politics and some of the hard-line politicians of the preceding generation. This was particularly true in the debate over diplomatic relations with the U.S.
“Rafsanjani was a man who was always anti-American, stuck to Iranian ideology, but at the same time was preaching that there should be relations with the United States — that there should be an update domestically of Iran’s harsh ideological rules,” Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, tells NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Erdbrink adds: “He is and was a good friend of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei, but at the same time had the stature to criticize his and other policies. With him gone, it will be harder to voice certain criticisms.”
Just months from Iraq’s presidential election in May, Rafsanjani’s death also leaves President Rouhani without his “political soul mate,” in the words of The Washington Post. Rouhani, whose signature nuclear deal with the U.S. is already in danger, now faces an even more inclement political climate with Rafsjani gone.