Tens of thousands of people joined the country's leaders in today’s funeral. Dubbed the “Shark" and "pragmatic", the late president (1989-1997) was Ayatollah Khomeini’s confidante. Spearheading the alliance between moderates and reformers, he was instrumental in Rouhani’s victory. His death comes a few months before upcoming presidential elections, which are shaping up to be an uphill battle.
Tehran (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Tens of thousands of mourners gathered at Tehran University for the funeral of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjan who suffered a fatal heart attack on Sunday at the age of 82.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stood next to President Hassan Rouhani and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as he led the funeral service.
Black banners waved across the capital with posters showing Khamenei and Rafsanjani together, smiling. One poster said ‘Good bye, old combatant’.
Free bus or underground train travel was provided to the funeral venue.
Rafsanjani, a close aide to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, was parliamentary speaker until Khomeini’s death in 1989.
He was also a major supporter of Rouhani and served as a go-between for pro-overture reformers and hard-liners.
Nicknamed the “Shark", he was seen as pragmatic. A close confidante of Khomeini and one of the military leaders during the terrible war with Iraq (1980 - 1988), he helped launch the Iranian nuclear programme.
At the time, relations with Europe and the United States began to deteriorate when Khomeini issued a fatwa imposing a death sentence on Salman Rushdie.
By contrast, his term as president (1989-1997) was a time of cautious reforms and an attempt to restore relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours, and the West.
He was considered a protector of moderates, which made him an enemy of conservatives. However, many reformers distrusted him because he was seen as a man of the regime and had been accused of involvement in the killing of dissidents.
In a statement, Khamenei said that "The loss of my companion of struggle, whose cooperation with me dated back 59 years, is difficult and overwhelming". Although noting that "The different opinions and interpretations at times in this long period could never entirely break up the friendship" between us, the supreme leader did criticise Rafsanjani during his second mandate for his liberal economic policies.
In 2005, when Rafsanjani ran again, Khamenei sided with ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad helping him win. In fact, tensions with the Supreme Leader limited his power, so much so that his daughter Faezeh – considered his political heir – and his son Mehdi were jailed, which led him to take a low profile.
Still, he was able to establish an alliance of moderates and reformers to support the little-known moderate Hassan Rouhani, ensuring his victory in 2013.
Two years later, when most of the best-known pro-reform candidates were not allowed to run in the parliamentary elections, Rafsanjani convinced reformers to support moderate candidates. This led to a major defeat for conservatives and hardliners who lost control of parliament after 12 years of almost total domination.
With Rafsanjani’s death, Rouhani has lost a major ally ahead of the May presidential election, whilst the shadow cast by the election of Donald Trump as US president looms large on the 2015 nuclear agreement, which hard-liners see as a failure and promise to get rid of as soon as they get the chance.
At the same time reformers are unhappy with their share of representation in the circles of power, whilst average Iranians are unhappy with the less-than-tangible effects of the lifting of the sanctions on the their economic situation.