The death of Hashemi Rafsanjani offers an interesting case study on the discourse surrounding the Iranian regime. While apologists for the regime in Tehran eulogise and lionise Rafsanjani’s legacy, Iranian’s who have lived through the last 30 years have an altogether different recollection. While many writing in the West seem insistent on whitewashing Rafsanjani’s record, thankfully a documentary record exists to provide an alternate view of Rafsanjani’s legacy.
Iranians recollection of Rafsanjani’s reign is a view not characterised by fond memories of an elder statesman, but the harsh realities of life under his rule. Rafsanjani’s rule in Iran was anything but moderate. The use of torture, murder and mass killings became the norm during the height of Rafsanjani’s power, and coincided with bloody purges of dissidents inside and outside the country’s borders.
The myth of Rafsanjani’s moderation is nothing new, yet it was dismissed as far back as 1989, when a New York Times article noted that the UN had found no improvement in human rights under Rafsanjani. “This year’s report, diplomats say, is particularly significant because it casts doubt on widespread expectation that President Rafsanjani will prove a more moderate leader, favouring pragmatic policies including closer cooperation with the rest of the world.”
Interestingly enough, almost three decades later, the same expectations and failures are taking place under Rafsanjani’s protégé, incumbent Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
There is substantial evidence that Rafsanjani was the chief architect of one Iran’s darkest and bloodiest eras. He served as an adviser to Khomeini and Parliamentary Speaker during the 1988 massacre of political prisoners in Iran, which resulted in the mass summary executions of thousands of dissidents, and remains one of the most heinous crimes in Iranian history.
It was Rafsanjani who appointed Assadollah Lajevardi as the director of Iran’s prisons, which led to institutionalised torture chambers and a climate of terror throughout the country. Lajevardi went on to earn the nickname of the “Butcher of Evin” for his grotesque methods of torture, including normalising rape and mutilation in Iran’s prisons. Lajevardi was thought to have personally executed thousands of political prisoners during his tenure.
Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi correctly points out that Rafsanjani also presided over the infamous “chain murders”, whose victims included more than 80 writers, activists and dissidents, including the 1992 assassination of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin.
The facts surrounding these killings reveal “insights into the operation of meticulously organised death squads directly linked to the rule of Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, according to US and German officials.” These operations included dozens of targeted killings of Iranian dissidents abroad, including former prime minister Shapour Bakhtiar, leaving little doubt that “such a high-level assassination [could] have been undertaken without Rafsanjani’s approval.”
Far from being a supporter of change and reform inside the country, Rafsanjani justified the suppression of student protests in 1999 and “praised the use of force by the state”. A decade later Rafsanjani would opportunistically attach himself to the popular uprising in 2009, and somehow portray himself as the protector of a population that protested the theocracy he helped create.
Rafsanjani’s policies not only destroyed and dismantled Iran’s opposition movements, but solidified the regime in its current mafia ruling structure, while playing a cat and mouse game of appeasement with the West. All of these realities leave one to wonder how it is possible to cloak yourself in the robe of reform and moderation while in fact strengthening and consolidating a despotic regime. Perhaps Rafsanjani’s ability to cultivate such an image, particularly in the West, is his most significant achievement.
His manoeuvrings, particularly in his latter days, were neither benign nor in the pursuit of justice, but centred on power, profit and shrewd calculations for the survival of a corrupt and repressive regime. This is a legacy which will no doubt continue among those who stand to gain by increased trade in Iran and engagement with the regime.
Rafsanjani’s role in the regime and its survival deserve a more complete analysis than the simple labels of “moderate” and “pragmatist”, and the Iranian dissidents and ordinary people deserve to be more than a footnote in his obituary.
Rafsanjani was not interested in reform, but political posturing and survival. Nor was he a moderate in deeds or words, but a cunning politician who deftly played his enemies against each other yet remained closely attached to them. His brand of politics meant that everything was negotiable for the right price, so long as you were willing to sit with the mullahs of Iran. It is no wonder that both Khamenei and the United States government expressed remorse over his passing.
Make no mistake about it, Rafsanjani’s goals were to prolong the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in its current state, so long as he and his cohorts were given the lion’s share.