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Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Rafsanjani was NO MODERATE
reams of reform haven’t died with the Islamic Republic’s former president.
The former Iranian president in Tehran, 2015.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was the original Mr. Moderation. Western observers saw the former Iranian president as a sort of Deng Xiaoping in clerical robes: a founder of the Islamic Republic who was destined to transform the country into a normal state. Rafsanjani, they thought, was too corrupt to be an ideologue.
Yet Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at 82, consistently defied such hopes. His life and legacy remind us that fanaticism and venality aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s a lesson in the persistence of Western fantasies about the Iranian regime.
Born to landed gentry in southeast Iran, Rafsanjani entered seminary at the holy city of Qom. There the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini adopted him as a protégé and revolutionary companion.
The totalitarian theocracy that replaced the Peacock Throne after the 1979 revolution was as much Rafsanjani’s creation as Khomeini’s. Khomeini provided the theological underpinnings for his model of absolute clerical rule. But it was Rafsanjani who fleshed out the ideas, as speaker of Parliament in the 1980s and president for much of the ’90s.
Rafsanjani delivered the wake-up call to Iranian liberals and leftists, who still dreamt of sharing power with the Islamists. “Until we had our people in place,” he told one such liberal in 1981, “we were ready to tolerate [other] gentlemen on the stage.” But now the regime would brook no faction but those that followed the “Line of the Imam”—Khomeini. A decade of purges, prison rapes and executions followed.
Khomeini’s death in 1989 occasioned Rafsanjani’s worst political misstep. Thinking he could puppeteer events behind the scenes, Rafsanjani successfully promoted his archrival, Ali Khamenei, as the next supreme leader. But Mr. Khamenei, far more assertive than Rafsanjani had imagined, soon consolidated power.
The regime’s Western apologists framed that rivalry as a genuine ideological conflict between the “hard-line” Mr. Khamenei and the “pragmatic,” “moderate” Rafsanjani (along with others, such as current President Hassan Rouhani). President Obama’s nuclear deal was premised on the same fantasy: Rafsanjani had accumulated vast, ill-gotten wealth—here’s someone with whom we can do business.
Yet Rafsanjani never failed to follow the “Line of the Imam,” not least in foreign affairs. Khomeini turned terror into a plank of Iranian statecraft, and so it remained.
In 1992, during Rafsanjani’s presidency, Iranian operatives gunned down four dissidents at a Berlin restaurant. The “pragmatic” Rafsanjani regularly sat on a “Committee for Special Operations” that oversaw foreign assassinations, according to an Iranian intelligence officer who testified at a criminal trial in Germany.
Argentine prosecutors have marshaled evidence establishing the Rafsanjani government’s role in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, both in Buenos Aires. The two attacks killed more than 100 people.
The great pragmatist was also president when, in 1996, Iranian agents bombed Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, killing 19 U.S. service members. And it was Rafsanjani who said in 2001: “If one day the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”
Still the illusions die hard. Minutes after Rafsanjani’s death was announced, the New York Times’s Tehran correspondent tweeted that it “is a major blow to moderates and reformists in Iran.”
Mr. Ahmari is a Journal editorial writer in London.