Rafsanjani’s Rashomon

I was planning on doing a post on a different subject this evening, but given the momentous news out of Iran just a short while ago, I had to change my plans.

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is dead. There is almost no way to understate the importance of Rafsanjani in Iranian politics. He was one of the key figures in the founding of the Islamic Republic, a former two-term president, former chairman of the Assembly of Experts, and chairman of the Expediency Council, among a host of other prominent political positions. He was frequently referred to as a “kingmaker” in Iranian politics and was credited with engineering the election of the current president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2013. In his later years, he was associated frequently with the moderate and reformist factions in Iran, acting as a powerful counterweight to the more conservative and hardline factions in the powerful judiciary, as well as the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

His death will no doubt trigger a wave of literature in the coming days and weeks predicting what his passing means for the future of Iran, both politically and beyond, but I want to refrain from that at the moment. Instead, I want to highlight something I’ve noticed in coverage of Rafsanjani over the years. One which, I think, acts as a metaphor for the broader debate over the Islamic Republic that has been taking place since its founding nearly four decades ago.

One curiosity of Rafsanjani’s lengthy career was the way in which he seemed to be everything to everyone. Depending on whom you asked, he symbolized either the worst or the best elements of Iranian politics. In this way, Rafsanjani’s career embodied the “Rashomon effect.” The term refers to the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, Roshomon, in which different individuals describe the same events in different ways. The interpretations of Rafsanjani — as a politician, cleric, and man — are similarly multifaceted and contradictory.

Even now, as the Twitter analysis rolls in, one can see the vast differences of opinion Rafsanjani and the role he played in Iranian politics. On one side, you have those who believed Rafsanjani was an evil force, lurking in the background and using his immense power to surreptitiously and malevolently craft the most beneficial outcomes for himself or his country. Ironically, hardline factions in Iran and the West shared this decidedly negative view of the man. Israelis, too, largely agreed with this assessment thanks to a passage in a 2001 speech about the feasibility of a nuclear attack against Israel. Israeli leaders of all political stripes have frequently deployed this soundbite as incontrovertible proof of the Islamic Republic’s ultimate ambitions to annihilate the Jewish State.

On the other side, there are those who saw Rafsanjani primarily as a statesman and moderating force in post-Revolutionary Iran. He played a key role in convincing the first Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to accept the terms of the UN ceasefire that finally ended the bloody Iran-Iraq War after eight long years. Later, while serving as the Iranian president, he made cautious overtures to the United States to reestablish ties after years of sanctions. He was considered a “moderate” in the complex web of Iranian politics, but was sympathetic to reformists and expressed support for the Green Movement during the protests that followed the controversial 2009 presidential election. He paid a high personal price for this stance, suffering the arrest and imprisonment of his children.

In his final years, he was a prominent ally of current president Hassan Rouhani and supported the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 (permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) that traded aspects of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Above all, his proponents saw him as a pragmatic and stabilizing force in the frequently tumultuous seas of Iranian and Middle Eastern politics.

In many ways, the contrasting views of Rafsanjani echo the broader narrative competition on Iran and its intentions as an international and regional power. What his passing means will only become clear over time, but the stakes, especially with a presidential election scheduled for May of this year, could not be higher.

For now, however, all that is certain is that suddenly there is a void where there was once power.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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