Shortly before his death, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president and clerical major domo, mused on the Holocaust. “For instance, it is said that six million Jews died. Later accounts reveal that although people died, many Jews were in hiding during those days; ‘the dead’ are actually still living.” The larger point of the interview was to remind Iranian officials not to quibble publicly with the fraudulent Western narrative of the Holocaust, for it only empowers Israel. Such was Rafsanjani’s method and guile: He frequently brandished a moderate image that concealed the reality of his militancy.
Most of the cleric’s obituaries in the Western press lament the death of a “pragmatist” who in reality was the most consequential architect of the theocracy’s machinery of repression and regional ambitions. Rafsanjani, not his acolyte-turned-tormentor Ali Khamenei, enshrined terrorism as an instrument of Iranian statecraft. It was Rafsanjani who was the driving force behind the development of the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
The tragedy of Rafsanjani was that as he aged he seemed to appreciate the impossibility of the Islamic revolution. The limitations of this politically savvy cleric were most evident during his presidency. Assuming power after a devastating eight-year war with Iraq, Rafsanjani insisted that the imperatives of reconstruction and reform would guide him. His authoritarian tendencies, however, precluded empowering the private sector as he insisted on a strong state dictating the creation of a modern industrial economy. His crony-rich etatism led to a bloated bureaucracy, too much foreign borrowing, and a debt crisis. During Rafsanjani’s tenure, corruption became endemic. It was Rafsanjani who attempted to co-opt the Revolutionary Guards by giving them commanding positions in key sectors of the economy. The Islamic republic’s new class of wealthy revolutionaries, who all amassed fortunes through their connections to the regime and who make Chinese entrepreneurs look honest and transparent, are the real children of Rafsanjani.
As a leader who was enchanted by the success of East Asian autocracies, Rafsanjani never seriously contemplated political reform. At times, the mullah acknowledged that the onerous cultural strictures imposed by the state were alienating the youth from the regime. However, as a proponent of clerical dictatorship, he could never countenance measures that diminished the authority of the state. During his presidency, the press was severely censored, oppositionists were regularly jailed, and dissidents at home and abroad were assassinated. The most feared intelligence minister since the founding of the Islamic republic, Ali Fallahian, was Rafsanjani’s man. Rafsanjani would at times mimic reformist slogans and hold round-tables with intellectuals, but Iran’s terrorism apparatus remained very much intact.
Looking beyond Iran, Rafsanjani loved to hold conferences for militant Sunni Muslims who might, just possibly, realize that Sunnis and Shiites should come together against the United States and Israel. Probably the most traveled of Iran’s ruling clerical elite (with his family wealth, Rafsanjani voyaged extensively in the 1970s), Rafsanjani wasn’t at all comfortable with the sectarianism that now defines Tehran’s foreign policy.
He was extremely comfortable, however, with the idea of divide-and-conquer among infidels: He led the opening to Europe, viewing European technology and investment as essential prerequisites for Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. To fulfill that dream, Rafsanjani didn’t have a problem with cutting deals with American oil companies.
In the end, Rafsanjani’s most consequential legacy may be Iran’s nuclear aspirations. The 1979 revolution, with its tumult and turmoil, initially derailed the atomic program that the shah had initiated. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Rafsanjani emerged as the crucial benefactor of the nuclear industry. During the Iran-Iraq War, the clerical regime had many pressing needs, as the revolutionaries were seeking to consolidate their rule at home while fending off Saddam Hussein’s legions. Rafsanjani always found the money to keep the nuclear weapons research advancing, a fact that caused Western intelligence services some anxiety.
During his presidency (1989–1997), Rafsanjani revamped the Atomic Energy Organization, sought to lure Iranian scientists from abroad and went on a shopping spree for dual-use nuclear technologies. Rafsanjani’s published daily journals, which cover his presidency, reveal tantalizing evidence of cooperation with North Korea on ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. They also reveal Rafsanjani’s glee in outfoxing U.S. naval surveillance.
The task of forging ahead with Iran’s atomic dreams will now be the mandate of Rafsanjani’s most illustrious protégé, President Hassan Rouhani, who has shown his own guile in enchanting Westerners. Not that long ago, Rafsanjani and Rouhani were damned by Iran’s downtrodden reformists, who considered the two evil incarnate. Today Rafsanjani is mourned and his former deputy esteemed by the same men and women as godfathers of their possible salvation. Rafsanjani, blessed with a searing wit and a good sense of history, surely appreciated this delightful irony before his weak heart stopped his brilliant mind from plotting against his many enemies.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Reuel Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.