Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani: the man who mirrored an ever-changing Iran

Rafsanjani obit_00022427
Rafsanjani obit_00022427

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  • Rafsanjani was jailed five times for his opposition to the Shah
  • The former president's influence will still be felt in Iran

(CNN)Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at the age of 82, was a political giant in Iran. A key player in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he held numerous leadership roles -- from speaker of parliament to serving twice as president (between 1989 and 1997) to heading influential clerical bodies -- since the establishment of the Islamic Republic nearly four decades ago.

But Rafsanjani's impact on Iranian politics transcended any of his official roles. In many ways, he embodied a certain vision for the country that was ever-changing and, at times, inherently contradictory. As a revolutionary, he fought the Shah's regime and its Western-leaning social and economic policies. But when he became president a year after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, he pushed for liberalization and privatization programs, hoping to boost the country's war-torn economy.
President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani addresses  Parliament after being sworn in for a second term in office on August 4, 1993.
He was jailed five times for his opposition to the Shah before the Revolution, but was criticized for not tolerating dissent when he was in power and his government was accused of human rights abuses.
He was an early advocate of Iranian support for non-state actors across the Middle East, including the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah, but later became a champion for a more pragmatic foreign policy approach toward Iran's neighbors and the international community.
It was this very ability to change positions and modify stances according to the circumstances, as well as his skill at navigating what were at times competing ideas, that enabled Rafsanjani to remain an influential heavyweight within the Iranian system.
In 2009, the former President risked his own political career by supporting the Green Movement protests, disputing the outcome of that year's presidential elections. That decision put him at odds with his erstwhile comrade-in-arms, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and set in motion a series of events that sidelined the old Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps -- involved in cracking down on protests -- from some of the very institutions Rafsanjani had led before.
Iranian opposition supporters protest in Tehran after powerful cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani ended his Friday prayers sermon on July 17, 2009.
His support for the Green Movement reinvigorated his image among the urban middle-class segments of Iranian society who made up the bulk of the movement and solidified Rafsanjani's role as a backer of factions within Iran that advocated the reform of the system to ensure its survival.
His support for centrist and moderate forces was believed to be key in the 2013 presidential elections that brought to power current President Hassan Rouhani, a close Rafsanjani ally. Not surprisingly, Rouhani was one of the first to react to the death of his mentor, tweeting: "The spirit of the giant of the #Revolution and politics, the symbol of #patience and #resilience has soared to the heavens. #HashemiRafsanjani."
Two years after that election, Iran signed a landmark nuclear deal with the P5+1, paving the way for the country's reintegration into the global market after years of sanctions. Rafsanjani was an early and loud supporter of the deal, often highlighting its potential economic benefits for the country.
It will be the centrist forces of Iranian politics, led by President Rouhani, who will miss Rafsanjani the most -- especially as they gear up to compete in the upcoming presidential election just months away. They no longer have a heavyweight supporter within the system who can shield them from criticism and who can mobilize support.
In death, as in life, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will continue to impact the fate of the country he leaves behind in more ways than one.