Death Of Rafsanjani: The Meaning Of 'Reform' In Iran

Crowd mourning Rafsanjani in Tehran on Jan. 8
Crowd mourning Rafsanjani in Tehran on Jan. 8
Alidad Vassigh

TEHRAN — When a major political leader dies, the labels and comparisons acquired over a lifetime can tell us much about both the leader and the nation itself. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a veteran of the 1979 Iranian Revolution who later evolved into a reformist, has been called over the years everything, from the "General of Construction," the "Godfather" and Kouseh (Persian for "clean-shaven"). His death Sunday reminds us that the 82 year old was a man of many facets — and that Iran's current wave of reform still hangs very much in the balance.

The current government of President Hassan Rouhani, himself a reformer and a Rafsanjani protégé, declared three days of mourning and announced offices would be shut on Tuesday. Reformist daily, Arman-e Emrooz, hailed Rafsanjani as the "Amir Kabir of his age," comparing him to one of the most popular statesman of 19th-century Iran, who modernized many aspects of public life and government.

In the 1980s, Rafsanjani, a prominent parliamentarian, was a close advisor to the country's then revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before becoming from the late 1980s onward a sort-of "pragmatic" conservative. In contrast with his faded standing of recent years, when Rafsanjani spoke in the 1980s and 1990s, it was the Islamic Republic speaking, and observers monitored his declarations or sermons in Tehran's congregational Friday prayers to discern Iran's policy positions.

He presided over Iran's "reconstruction" and some privatizations after the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war — which earned Rafsanjani the title of "General of Construction" — even as the regime kept suppressing dissent, which helped undermine his supposedly popular voter base. Also regarded as pivotal in Iran's pursuit of nuclear power, his hands are considered dirtied by many internationally by accusations of a role in terrorist attacks.

In the 1990s, he found himself between more impatient reformers keen to liberalize the state and conservatives determined to enhance the powers of the new Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Eventually Rafsanjani shifted more clearly toward the reformist camp from the early 2000s, taking a firm stance against the unpredictable hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and eventually finding vindication in the 2013 victory of Rouhani.

The conservative dailies Resalat and Kayhan dedicated space to the reaction of the Supreme Leader, who called Rafsanjani an "old friend and comrade," while noting their differences on policy over the years. One conservative daily loyal to Rafsanjani, Jomhouri-e Eslami, declared this a "great loss' to the Islamic Revolution, writing that Khomeini's "sincere friend has joined the Imam."

The reformist Shargh bid "Goodbye to the Man of Expediency," which was perhaps more an observation than praise.

Will Rafsanjani be missed in Iran? He was touted intermittently as a possible next supreme leader. But hardliners retain firm control of key institutions like the Assembly of Experts, the body in charge of electing the country's leader. Rafsanjani's political nemesis, the very conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati was elected the Assembly's president in the last round, apparently crushing any plans to bring a "moderate" to power. That would assume these labels still mean something in Iran.

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Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung


BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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