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.