Death of Rafsanjani is blow to Iran’s reform movement

Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke in 2011.
Former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani spoke in 2011.AFP/Getty Images

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s state television on Sunday confirmed the death of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and a leading reformer, who had a stroke on Sunday. He was 82.

“Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the expediency discernment council, after a lifetime of ceaseless endeavors towards the path of Islam and the revolution, left this world,” a ticker on the state television Channel One read.

His death is a huge blow for Iran’s marginalized reformist movement, and moderates in the government, for whom the Shiite Muslim cleric was a leader and figurehead.

Rafsanjani also was one of the main voices in Iran calling for an outreach to the West and the United States.


“He will be missed,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst close to the reformists. “He was increasingly powerless, but gave us hope. Now we will have to do without him.”

Rafsanjani had a long career as a revolutionary, but was also suspected of accumulating great wealth and influence in the process. He was one of the leaders of the 1979 Islamic revolution, an aide to the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. He also played an kingmaker role in picking the successor to the role of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the current head of Iran.

“He was one of the most influential figures before and after the revolution,” said Ali Khorram, Iran’s former ambassador to China.

Rafsanjani’s death means that president Hassan Rouhani, a close confidante, is now the main leader of those calling for change in Iran.

The former reformist president Mohammad Khatami has more support from ordinary Iranians, but has been nearly silenced by hard-liners, who do not allow him to appear on television or have his image published in newspapers.

Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997. But after his presidency, political rivals, jealous of his grip on the economy, seized on his support for reformists and labeled him an “aristocrat,” a “capitalist” and a supporter of “American Islam”


By 2002, his political stock had fallen so low he could not even muster the votes to win a seat in Parliament. He sustained a humiliating defeat against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 presidential election.

After his election loss, Rafsanjani was propelled into the role of a critical politician, increasingly at odds with Khamenei over the direction the revolution should take. Where Iran’s supreme leader backed the continuation of a harsh, anti-Western ideological line, Rafsanjani pleaded for an update of the political system, bringing it on par with Iran’s changing society.

His speech in favor of greater freedom during the enormous 2009 protests that followed a presidential election in which the results were widely seen as fraudulent alienated him from Iran’s conservative clerics and military commanders.

In 2013, attempting a political comeback at 79, he was barred from seeking the presidency by the Guardian Council, a decision that shocked Iranians. The disqualification seemed like an official repudiation of his ideas of a liberal economy and more freedoms.

In 2015, his son, Mehdi Hashemi, a hated figure among Iranian hard-liners, was given a 15-year prison sentence after he was convicted of bribery and embezzlement.

In 2016, his daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, sparked a debate on religious persecution in Iran by visiting the female leader of the persecuted Baha’i religious minority. The two women had met in prison, when Hashemi was serving a six-month sentence for “spreading propaganda against the system.”


The semiofficial Fars news agency is reporting that Rafsajani will be buried on Tuesday in a state funeral. Schools, offices and governmental organizations will be closed for several days.