The news of the sudden passing of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has utterly shocked Iranians of all walks of life.
The prominent statesman had been involved in public life going back to his youth during the Shah’s dictatorial regime, when he was a leading activist and endured years of prison, torture, and exile.
After the success of the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to the country, Rafsanjani emerged as the closest aide and confidant to the revolutionary father and would play an instrumental role in managing the country under his leadership.
After Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Rafsanjani juggled serving as speaker of parliament and a top war commander for eight years. He also played a decisive role in ending the conflict as he made sure Iran held its head up high even when virtually every global and regional power had supported Saddam.
After the war, he initiated a massive reconstruction program to rebuild the country during his two terms as president between 1989 and 1997.
When Rafsanjani was elected president, Iran was also gripped by political polarization and radicalism among its leftist and rightist political factions. He set on championing the idea of moderation as a guiding philosophy in foreign and domestic policy and fought to entrench centrism in Iranian politics — a cause to which he remained dedicated to till his last day.
I knew Ayatollah Rafsanjani for over 30 years. I experienced firsthand how he always emphasized the importance of relations with Eastern countries such as China, Russia, and India, while at the same time ceaselessly endeavoring to improve Iran’s ties with the West and decrease US-Iran tensions.
Relations with the West
Despite American support for Saddam, Rafsanjani was receptive to President George HW Bush’s promise that “goodwill begets goodwill”.
When Washington and European officials appealed to Iran to help release Western hostages trapped in Lebanon between 1982 and 1992, Rafsanjani delivered. He dispatched Mahmoud Vaezi — now minister of communication — and myself to engage in diplomacy that ultimately secured the release of all European and American hostages.
Bush, however, would not follow through on his promise and reciprocate the goodwill gesture. Despite this, Rafsanjani persisted and in 1995 offered Iran’s first oil contract to a foreign firm since the revolution to the US company Conoco. Valued at over $1 billion, the contract would fall victim to an executive order by then President Bill Clinton barring it and other similar investments in Iran.
Rafsanjani also made every effort during his presidency to improve Iran’s relations with Europe and its Arab neighbors.
In one meeting, then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and I discussed with Rafsanjani options for developing friendlier ties with the Gulf states. Rafsanjani told Genscher that Tehran supported the establishment of a security and cooperation system among Gulf countries similar to the EU. Genscher was elated and said he would notify Washington. A short while later he informed us in private that Washington opposed the idea.
Between 1990 and 1997, I served as Iran’s Ambassador to Germany. The German chancellor at the time, Helmut Kohl, was eager to defuse tensions between Iran and the US. Rafsanjani welcomed Kohl’s efforts and informed him that Iran was ready for cooperation on preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, combating terrorism, and safeguarding human rights.
With great hope, Kohl travelled to Washington to notify US officials. Some weeks later, I was told by the chancellor’s office that that Kohl had spoken with President Clinton, who strongly opposed the entire initiative.
In the mid-1990s, Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah—who was effectively already running the country as his father’s health was ailing—reached out to Rafsanjani and suggested talks. Saudi-Iran ties had vastly deteriorated due to Saudi support for Saddam in the Iran-Iraq War.
Alongside a son of Rafsanjani, I traveled to Riyadh and negotiated for days with the Crown Prince. The result was a series of agreements that maintained amicable ties between the two countries from 1997 until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005.
Rafsanjani was a man of peace and cooperation in foreign policy and of construction and development in Iran. He worked to build a modern, progressive nation true to its history and religion while remaining at peace with its neighbors.
His most significant legacy, however, will be of ingraining a mindset of moderation and aversion to radicalism in Iran and the region. While many in the West did not comprehend this in his time, costing him dearly politically, he passed the torch to a new generation in Tehran, making it still possible to right past wrongs and reach the breakthroughs he long fought for but never lived to see.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Middle East security and nuclear policy specialist at Princeton University and author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace. He was an advisor to Rafsanjani and the Iranian Ambassador to Germany from 1990 to 1997. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.