Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani casts his ballot for the parliamentary elections in front of a portrait of late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini
It was 1979. I was in year 4 at Ryde East Primary School. Something terrible happened. It was called a “revolution” and was all over the TV news, which, back in those days, I only watched because I was forced to. It took place in Iran, a country next door to my dad’s country and one whose name I always remembered because it sounded so much like my own.
Before this, Iran had been a really good place where everyone liked America, drank alcohol and dressed all modern and stuff. They had a nice handsome-looking king, but they overthrew him in favour of a bearded man named Ruhollah Khomeini with big nasty beady eyes whose colleagues also sported beards and wore black coats with black turbans. These guys rarely smiled, and their young followers used to scream death to America and death to Israel.
I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but one of the nasty black-cloaked dudes standing with Khomeini and whispering advice into his ear was a pistachio farmer named Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Though he died on Sunday, his legacy remains.
Five years later, as my interest in political Islam grew, there weren’t too many religious books available in English. We didn’t have the internet, and media sources were also limited. Yet whether you watched Eyewitness News on Channel Ten or read the three-in-one rice paper weekly consisting of The Guardian, Le Monde and The Washington Post, the news on Iran was never nice. Our local mosques and imams also didn’t have nice things to say about Iran, despite being all cheery about the Afghan jihadists battling the nasty communists. And the only Iranian voices we ever heard were from those who were fleeing the Shah and the Islamic regime.
But any kid interested in political Islam had to learn about the Iranian Revolution. For these early years, the voice of relative sanity among the Iranian regime was Rafsanjani. Whether American diplomats were being taken hostage by Iranian students or American journalists kidnapped for seven years by pro-Iranian militias in Beirut or the same militias engaging in suicide attacks against Israeli troops, Rafsanjani was always being presented as the good guy. Yet the reality was that such violent excesses were unlikely to have happened without Rafsanjani’s acquiescence or at least knowledge.
The guy was the wiliest of wily politicians and co-authored the constitution that created the revolutionary government before holding just about every major leadership position. Among the positions he held was commander in chief of the armed forces during the 1980-88 war with Iraq. Perhaps the best (and funniest) account of the effects of the war on Iranians living near the Iraqi border can be found in Good Muslim Boy, the memoir of Iranian-Iraqi-Australian actor and author Osamah Sami.
Rafsanjani wasn’t terribly liked by ethnic and religious minorities, including those of the same faith. He also is believed to have played a role in having Iranian dissidents in Europe assassinated, and also was involved in an attack on a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. At the same time, while speaker of the Iranian parliament, Rafsanjani oversaw a system in which Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians had seats reserved for them.
After the war, Rafsanjani was elected president. He held that position twice before losing to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s very own version of Donald Trump, in 2005. Hopefully for the world, we won’t be seeing an Iranian Trump win the 2017 Iranian presidential elections.
Rafsanjani went onto hold other influential positions. He also founded a university and wrote a 20-volume commentary of the Koran.
How will he be remembered? Iraqis, including devout Iraqi Shia, will recall him as the man who led a war effort against their country even as they resented Saddam Hussein. Lebanese and Israelis will remember Rafsanjani as the man who gave them Hezbollah. Militias claiming to represent Syria’s Sunni majority will remember Rafsanjani as wavering over Iran’s support for the Syrian regime.
And young Iranians? For them, Rafsanjani was a key leader of Iran’s self-styled Islamic Revolution. This remains at heart an ideological revolution even if most people it rules over have never seen the ideological and political struggles of the revolution’s founders. They have never seen the repression of the Shah, but experience on a daily basis arguably lesser repression of the theocrats. These young people never saw Rafsanjani imprisoned and tortured by Iran’s US-backed Shah and his vicious Israeli-trained SAVAK secret police. They are young people who don’t resent Western culture in the manner of Rafsanjani’s generation. And they are unlikely to share in the millions, which Rafsanjani and his family amassed during his time holding various positions in the revolutionary regime.