Monday 22 May 2017

Former Iranian president Rafsanjani dies aged 82

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died (AP)
Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died (AP)

Iran's former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died after a decades-long career in the ruling elite.

The political moderate's life spanned the trials of Iran's modern history, from serving as a close aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Islamic Revolution to acting as a go-between in the Iran-Contra deal.

He helped found Iran's contested nuclear programme but later backed the accord with world powers to limit it in exchange for sanctions relief.

Mr Rafsanjani died aged 82 after suffering a heart attack, state media reported.

Iranian media said he was taken to hospital north of Tehran, where doctors performed CPR in vain for nearly an hour and a half before declaring him dead.

A female state newscaster's voice quivered as she read the news.

Mr Rafsanjani, "after a life full of restless efforts in the path of Islam and revolution, had departed for lofty heaven," she said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Mr Rafsanjani an "old friend and comrade," and said his loss is "difficult and life-decreasing". The government announced three days of mourning, and a funeral was expected to be held on Tuesday.

Mr Rafsanjani served as president from 1989 to 1997, during a period of significant changes in Iran. At the time, the country was struggling to rebuild its economy after the devastating 1980s war with Iraq, while also cautiously allowing some wider freedoms, as seen in Iran's highly regarded film and media industry.

He also oversaw key developments in Iran's nuclear programme by negotiating deals with Russia to build an energy-producing reactor in Bushehr, which finally went into service in 2011 after long delays. Behind the scenes, he directed the secret purchase of technology and equipment from Pakistan and elsewhere.

In an interview published in October, Mr Rafsanjani acknowledged the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, which killed some 1 million people, led Iran to consider seeking nuclear weapons.

"Our basic doctrine was always for a peaceful nuclear application, 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," he said. "But we never went."

The cleric managed to remain within Iran's ruling theocracy after leaving office, but an attempt to return to the presidency in 2005 was dashed by the electoral victory of the more hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mr Rafsanjani was later branded a dissenter by many conservatives for his harsh criticism of the crackdown that followed Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009.

But after years of waning influence, Mr Rafsanjani was handed an unexpected political resurgence with the 2013 victory of a fellow moderate, Hassan Rouhani, giving him an insider role in efforts that would culminate in the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Some analysts believe that Mr Rafsanjani was kept within the ruling fold as a potential mediator with America and its allies in the stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme.

His past stature as a trusted Khomeini ally also offered him political protection. Mr Rafsanjani was a top commander in the war with Iraq and played a key role in convincing Mr Khomeini to accept a ceasefire after years of crippling stalemate.

His image, however, also had darker undertones. He was named by prosecutors in Argentina among Iranian officials suspected of links to a 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Some Iranian reformers accused him of involvement in the killing of liberals and dissidents during his presidency - charges he denied and that were never pursued by Iranian authorities.

"The title of Islamic Republic is not just a formality," he said in 2009 in the chaos after Mr Ahmadinejad's re-election.

"Rest assured, if one of those two aspects is damaged we will lose our revolution. If it loses its Islamic aspect, we will go astray. If it loses its republican aspect, (the Islamic Republic) will not be realised. Based on the reasons that I have offered, without people and their vote there would be no Islamic system."

Mr Rafsanjani is survived by his wife, Effat Marashi, and five children.

On Sunday night, Mr Rouhani and others visited the hospital to see Mr Rafsanjani one final time before his body was taken to a mosque ahead of burial.

"He was a revolutionary and freedom-seeking cleric who stuck up for the people's votes," said Saeed Karimi, a supporter outside the hospital. "It is such a pity that the nation has lost a political leader and guide."

AP

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