DISCLAIMER: all opinions in this column reflect view of the autor(s), not of Vocal Europe
One of the key founding fathers of Iran’s clerical regime, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, died on January 8th.
Many in Europe remember him as the president of Iran who promised reconstruction and a more open society after the end of the Iran-Iraq war and his ascent to presidency in the late 1980s, others remember him as the “moderate” who groomed the current President Hassan Rouhani. The western media variously described him as a “moderate,” “reformer,” or “pragmatist.”
But who was Rafsanjani, really, and what does his death mean for Iran and the United States?
In whichever of his many official positions, Rafsanjani acted as one of the two pillars of the ruling theocracy alongside Supreme Leader Khamenei. Regardless of how he was portrayed in the West, he was responsible for suppression at home, terrorism abroad, and the regime’s quest for nuclear weapons. Always the Iranian regime’s number two, he was crucial to its equilibrium and key to preserving the system, particularly after the death of the first Supreme Leader Khomeini.
Rafsanjani presented an intellectual face to a decrepit, misogynistic theocracy awoken from the middle ages. He famously dismissed gender equality, telling the state-run Ettela’at daily, on June 7, 1986, that “a man’s brain is larger (than a woman’s)” and “men are more rational.”
From the 1970s up to Khomeini’s death in 1988, Rafsanjani remained the Supreme Leader’s closest advisor. Dubbed by some as Khomeini’s “lieutenant,” he acted as de facto commander in chief during the Iran-Iraq war. After Khomeini’s death, he was the architect of Ali Khamenei’s rise to power.
In an interview published by the regime’s official state news agency IRNA on October 27, 2015, Rafsanjani acknowledged that during his time as Parliament Speaker and President, both he and Supreme Leader Khamenei sought ways to obtain a nuclear bomb. They jump-started and propelled forward the clandestine program, and stepped up cooperation with North Korea and Pakistan.
“Our basic doctrine was always a peaceful nuclear application,” Rafsanjani said, “but it never left our mind that if one day we should be threatened and it was imperative, we should be able to go down the other path.”
The West’s meaningless distinctions between “moderates” and “hardliners” are designed in part to make sense of an otherwise factionalized and opaque theocracy. Rafsanjani was an ardent supporter of the theocracy’s most fundamental principles and strategic policies. In that respect, he did not diverge in any meaningful way from Khamenei.
A quarter century ago, Rafsanjani declared with unfailing conviction that “in all affairs, the pivotal role of the velayat-e faqih (supreme leader) must be accepted as fundamental”. Without it, everything would crumble, i.e. the velayat-e faqih must be preserved at any cost. He was no reformer; nor is his protégée, current president Hassan Rouhani.
Rafsanjani’s presidency was marked by a particularly vicious round of repression at home – including the now infamous “chain murders” of hundreds of dissidents and intellectuals.
In summer 1988, as many as 30,000 political prisoners were massacred, which triggered the strong opposition of then successor-designate of the supreme leader Ruhollah Khomeni. Rafsanjani was never on the record to regret the killings, even when many Iranian regime’s officials tried to distance themselves after a damning audiotape surfaced in August 2016 documenting the 1988 killings.
Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and the ascend of Rafsanjani as the president of the Iranian regime; a new hope was revived in Europe for improved relations and wide-scale investment in Iran to help with the post-war reconstruction of the country. A West German delegation which included dozens of business executives led by Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher went to Iran in late 1988, but eventually came back empty handed. Other European countries were as enthusiastic that Rafsanjani would spell good news and Europe will improve both political and economical relations with Iran.
To the contrary, more dissidents were assassinated in Europe than at any other time in the life of the Iranian regime. They included the April 1990 assassination in Geneva of Prof. Kazem Rajavi, the representative of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) in Switzerland; the 1993 assassination in Rome of the NCRI’s representative Hossein Naghdi; and the 1996 assassination in Istanbul of Zahra Rajabi, also an NCRI official.
In 1997, a Berlin court ruled that a secret committee, made up of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, and several of his ministers, had ordered the 1992 assassinations of Kurdish dissidents at a Berlin restaurant.
In addition, other countries were not immune either. In 1994, the Jewish community center building in Buenos Aires was bombed, resulting in 85 deaths. Argentina issued an arrest warrant for Rafsanjani, accusing him of personally ordering the attacks.
The FBI concluded that Tehran had masterminded the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, resulting in the deaths of 19 American servicemen.
These are but some of the highlights of Rafsanjani’s career.
With his death, the regime “will lose its internal and external balance,” according to opposition leader Maryam Rajavi, and is “approaching overthrow.” This presents a historic opportunity for the U.S. to adopt a more effective policy that strategically contains, isolates and pressures the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror.
In relying on the vast experience of European nations in dealing with Iran, and the futile search for non-existent “moderates,” Europe will be better of adopting a principled and firm policy towards the murderous rulers of Tehran, while reaching out to the Iranian people and their organized opposition who seek a secular, democratic and non-nuclear republic in Iran. A nation blessed with vast human and natural resources dedicated to pluralism and genuine free market economy is a far more reliable and long lasting partner than the current repressive rulers of Iran.