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Will Rafsanjani’s death allow Rouhani to forge his own path?

Has the sudden passing of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani put the Reformist-moderate coalition in Iran at a disadvantage?
TEHRAN, IRAN - JANUARY 9:  Iranian President, Hassan Rohani joins mourners at Jamaran mosque during the mourning ceremony of one of the late founders of the Islamic Republic, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, January 9, 2017 in Tehran, Iran. Rafsanjani, who was 82, was a pivotal figure in the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979, served as president from 1989 to 1997. After a long career in the ruling elite, where his moderate views were not always welcome, his cunning guided him through revolution, war and t

TEHRAN, Iran — Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of the main stars in the political firmament of the Islamic Republic. Alongside Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Rafsanjani was one of the brains behind the Islamic Revolution of 1979. After the success of the revolution, he continued to be one of the main actors and, in recent years, among the main conductors of political developments in Iran.

After finishing his 1989-1997 tenure as president, Rafsanjani was treated unkindly, first by the Reformists and later by the Principlists. Yet Rafsanjani was still considered a major strategist of Iran's moderates. He played a prominent role in Iran's most recent presidential election in 2013. Rafsanjani, who did not enter the competition until the very last minute, created a massive wave in Iranian society by registering as a candidate for the 2013 vote, and after his shocking disqualification by the Guardian Council, was able to guide that very wave behind Hassan Rouhani and help get him elected as president.

Later, during a speech, Rafsanjani publicly stated that he was the reason Rouhani's share of votes increased from 3% to more than 50% in a single week. During his very last candidacy for office, in the February 2016 elections for the Assembly of Experts, he managed to gather more than 2 million votes and even surpassed Rouhani as the top candidate from Tehran.

Now, the Reformist movement in Iran has lost an important behind-the-scenes operator — an operator who had leaned closer to the Reformist movement since the controversial 2009 presidential elections and was thus considered the spiritual leader of the Reformists alongside former Reformist President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). Additionally, Rafsanjani had been chairman of the Expediency Council since its formation. This assembly's most important role is to act as an advisory council for the supreme leader and to function as a mediator between the Guardian Council and parliament.

The death of this influential man in such a sudden and unexpected way shocked all political players and even political analysts in Iran. Looking at the pictures released of the politicians attending Rafsanjani's funeral, one can clearly see how shocked and perplexed they were.

Putting the past aside, what does the future hold? Rafsanjani collaborated with Khatami during the 2013 presidential elections, and their collaboration resulted in the rise of Rouhani. In spite of their disagreements with Rafsanjani, the Reformists have stood by him during the past few years. Now, with Rafsanjani's death, the Reformists have lost one of their main supporters — a supporter who, in spite of losing some of his influence in recent years, still held a lot of political weight in Iran.

At present, the balance of power is seriously tipping in favor of the conservatives and against the Reformists. In this vein, veteran Reformist journalist Mehdi Ghadimi told Al-Monitor, "Although Ayatollah Hashemi [Rafsanjani]'s sudden death was shocking, I think it will work in favor of Rouhani in the spring of 2017 presidential elections. I agree that the Reform movement and the moderate movement have lost one of their main authorities, but this loss can at least create a surge [in popular sentiment] in favor of Rouhani in the upcoming elections. Out of fear of Hashemi's legacy being destroyed, people will show up at the polling booths to vote for Rouhani."

Nonetheless, four months remain until the polls, and the Principlists have yet to choose any candidate — or candidates — as possible rivals of Rouhani. Therefore, it might be wishful thinking to assume that the wave created as a result of Rafsanjani's death will continue until election day.

Mehdi Rahimi, the political editor of Mehr News Agency, which opposes the Rouhani administration and the Reformists, told Al-Monitor, "The death of the ayatollah was quite sudden and shocking, and therefore it is too soon to analyze it. Although at first glance it might seem that the Reform movement has been dealt a severe blow, we need to wait for calm to return to see the aftermath." Rahimi continued, "Hashemi's important role was that of a mediator. Whenever the Reformists were facing a crisis or had a disagreement, he would step in as the elder statesman that he was and would try to solve the problem. From now on, they are deprived of this important figure."

Indeed, Rafsanjani was considered a symbol of moderation both within Iran and the region. He favored moderation in both his domestic and foreign policy approaches. It was this approach, as well as his close relations with late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, that helped him solve Iran's issues with Saudi Arabia during his presidency. His moderate approach resulted in him engendering the moderate movement, which is closely associated with Rafsanjani himself, and getting one of his closest companions, Rouhani, elected president. The Executives of Construction Party, which in a way is Rafsanjani's spiritual offspring, eventually became one of Iran’s most powerful political factions as well.

Now, both Rouhani and other members of the Executives of Construction Party have lost their spiritual father and they are in a difficult position. On the other hand, the situation could present a unique opportunity for Rouhani to succeed Rafsanjani, although many believe that he has a tough road ahead if he is to take Rafsanjani's place.

Thus, the big picture appears to be that the political equations in Iran are firmly changing against the moderates and the Reformists. The hard-liners have seen their main rival exiting the game: a rival who does not seem to have a successor in place — for now.

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