Serving the Leviathan


Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s life and death highlight what’s at stake in Iran today.

Temperate “principalists” (usulgarayan), technocratic conservatives (eʿtedaliyyun), and reformists (eslahtalaban) — that is, much of the Iranian political class — saw something in the elderly statesman’s legacy worth appropriating. In this way, his death mirrors his life: during his sixty-plus years of political activity, he became many things to many people, while his ultimate objectives often remained opaque, if not virtually impossible to discern.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others often painted this postrevolutionary pragmatist as a corrupt and arrogant patrician who had cast aside revolutionary austerity in favor of decadent opulence. The accusation resonated far beyond Ahmadinejad’s supporters, aligning with popular slogans that denounced the two-time president as “Akbar Shah” (meaning King Akbar, Great Shah) and compelling ordinary citizens to scrawl dozd (thief) on many of his campaign posters during the 2005 presidential campaign. He was also known to many as “the shark” (kuseh) on account of his inability to grow a fully fledged beard, though others felt it described his political modus operandi to a tee.

By 2009, however, he seemed to have aligned himself with the Green Movement, drawing closer to the reformists he once opposed. His intermittent criticisms of the Ahmadinejad government endeared him to many, who began to see him as one of the few establishment voices willing to openly defy the administration and by extension, his old ally, the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He became inextricably linked with the trope of “moderation,” a powerful idea in a country on the precipice, especially after the UN imposed sanctions of 2006.

Many others remained skeptical, however, unable to forget his reputation as an arch-Machiavellian. They recycled urban legends about his family’s wealth, reinforcing his image as a power-obsessed wheeler-and-dealer.


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