Mournful Iranians attend funeral of former leader Rafsanjani

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TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Tehran on Tuesday, beating their chests and wailing in grief for the late Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died over the weekend at the age of 82.

The crowds filled main thoroughfares of the capital as top government and clerical officials held a funeral service at Tehran University. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held prayers by Rafsanjani's casket, as other dignitaries knelt before the coffin on which his white cleric's turban was placed, reaching their hands out for one final embrace.

Just behind Khamenei was President Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate administration led the recent nuclear negotiations with world powers. Rouhani, who is all but certain to run for re-election in May, is viewed as embodying Rafsanjani's realist vision.

Hard-liners also took part in the ceremony Tuesday, which was a public holiday across the country. Among them was Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations like the war in Syria.

Both Soleimani and Rafsanjani are from Iran's southeastern province of Kerman and worked together during the 1980s war against Iraq war.

Apparently banned from the funeral was former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who remains popular among the young but is deeply disliked by hard-liners. State media have banned the broadcasting of any images of Khatami.

Outside, mourners carried posters bearing Rafsanjani's image as his casket slowly made his way through the streets.

"I rarely attend religious ceremonies, but I am here as an Iranian who cannot forget Rafsanjani's contribution to developing political sphere in favor of people in recent years," said Nima Sheikhi, a computer teacher at a private school.

Nearby was cleric Reza Babaei from the eastern town of Birjand near Afghan border. "I am here to say goodbye to a man who dedicated his life to make Iran better," Babaei said. "He founded the university in my city and developed our region when he was in power."

Many in the crowds chanted that they would continue along Rafsanjani's "path."

The semi-official ILNA news agency said that on the sidelines of the funeral ceremony, moderate lawmaker Ali Motahari was asked by several mourners to free opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi from house arrest the two have been under since 2011.

"Our message is clear, the house arrest should be lifted," some chanted. The police and security forces did not react to the chants.

Rafsanjani's casket was heading to the ornate, massive shrine of the late Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. There, he will be buried by the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the rule of the American-backed shah.

Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Khomeini and Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997.

His life mirrored Iran's modern history. He served as the right-hand man of Khomeini. He led the military during the ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s. He helped launch Iran's nuclear program and then pushed for reconciliation with the West.

In the years after Khomeini's 1989 death, Rafsanjani represented one of an ever-shrinking number of leaders directly tied to the Islamic Revolution.

Internally, however, his legacy remains mixed. He was massively wealthy and a veteran at maneuvering within Iran's opaque political system.

He was considered a protector of the moderates, but many reformers distrusted him because he was such an insider and because of accusations he was involved in killing dissidents during his eight-year presidency, which he always denied. Hard-liners distrusted him because of his support of moderates and sought to sideline him, but he was too powerful and entrenched to be discounted.

Thousands mourn the death of former Iranian leader Rafsanjani. Getty Images

Thousands gather for Rafsanjani's funeral in Tehran

Hundreds of thousands of mourners led by Iran's supreme leader have gathered at Tehran University for the funeral of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

State television showed people pouring on to the streets around the campus where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led the ceremony for Rafsanjani on Tuesday.

Khamenei stood next to President Hassan Rouhani and Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani as they prayed in front of Rafsanjani's closed casket.

Images posted on social media also showed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani attending the funeral procession.

However, there have been reports that reformist leader and former president Mohammad Khatami was banned from attending Tuesday's event.

Rafsanjani, who died of a heart attack on Sunday at the age of 82, will be buried inside the crypt of Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, according to Al Jazeera's Dorsa Jabari, who is reporting from the Iranian capital.

"It's a very sombre occasion in the Islamic Republic," Jabari said. "This was something very unexpected. Many ordinary people, who weren't necessarily even fans of Rafsanjani, or his family, expressed their views that they were just shocked and extremely saddened by the loss."  

Khomeini's mausoleum is in south Tehran near the capital's largest airport.

Leaders of all of Iran's competing political factions also attended the funeral.

Black banners were raised in Tehran and some posters showed the supreme leader and Rafsanjani together smiling. Another poster said "Goodbye, old combatant".

Authorities have declared Tuesday a public holiday so Iranians can commemorate Rafsanjani.

Free bus or metro travel was provided to the funeral venue.

Since Rafsanjani's death, messages of condolence have poured in from home and abroad.

Even the White House sent a message, unprecedented since the 1979 revolution that led to the cutting of ties between Tehran and Washington.

Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Khomeini and Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997.

He was also a major supporter of Rouhani and served as a go-between for reformers seeking outreach to the world and hard-liners.

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ex-President of Iran, Dies at 82

Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president of Iran and a founder of the Islamic republic, who navigated the opaque shoals of his country’s theocracy as one of its most enduring, wiliest and wealthiest leaders, died on Sunday in Tehran. He was 82.

His death was announced by Iranian state television.

As his career seesawed through periods of revolutionary zeal and confrontation with powerful conservative rivals, he was portrayed as a Machiavellian and often ruthless player in the power struggles among Iran’s elite factions, protected by his close association with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader who overthrew the shah in 1979.

Known as a pragmatist and centrist inclined toward economic liberalism and political authoritarianism, Mr. Rafsanjani was accused by critics of corruption in amassing his fortune and of a readiness for harsh tactics to deal with dissent at home and abroad.

Argentina has accused Mr. Rafsanjani and other senior Iranian figures of complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people died. In 1997, a German court concluded that the highest levels of Iran’s political leadership had ordered the killing five years earlier of four exiled Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. The events added weight to American assertions that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism. Mr. Rafsanjani was president from 1989 to 1997.

Yet many Western analysts believed that he sought a less confrontational relationship with the United States than other powerful figures in the Iranian hierarchy, for whom hostility toward Washington was a touchstone of ideological purity.

In the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, Mr. Rafsanjani was appointed acting commander in chief of Iranian forces and was widely credited with persuading the leadership in Tehran to accept a United Nations resolution that ended the fighting.

For much of his career, he maintained roles in Parliament and on influential clerical panels, under the tutelage of Ayatollah Khomeini and then, less durably, of his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mr. Rafsanjani’s clout declined sharply during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from 2005 to 2013. A populist conservative, Mr. Ahmadinejad had a strong following among poor Iranians, many of whom resented the affluence that endeared Mr. Rafsanjani to his wealthier compatriots.

In 2013, Mr. Rafsanjani was disqualified from standing in presidential elections and swung his political weight behind a moderate, longtime associate, Hassan Rouhani, who won the vote and went on to bring many of Mr. Rafsanjani’s supporters into his cabinet and to negotiate the nuclear agreement with the United States in 2015.

But Mr. Rafsanjani, himself an ayatollah, clashed with Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, over the extent to which Iran should modify its bellicose stance toward outsiders. In March, Mr. Rafsanjani wrote on Twitter that the “world of tomorrow is one of negotiations, not the world of missiles.”

Ayatollah Khamenei responded: “Enemies continue strengthening their military and missile sectors. How can anyone say the era of missiles has passed?”

Without identifying Mr. Rafsanjani by name, Ayatollah Khamenei said: “People say that tomorrow’s world is a world of negotiations and not a world of missiles. If they say this thoughtlessly, it shows they are thoughtless. However, if this is intentional, then this is treachery.”

For all that, analysts in Tehran sensed that the pendulum was swinging toward the moderate camp, in which Mr. Rafsanjani played a defining role.

Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was born on Aug. 23, 1934, in the village of Bahraman near the town of Rafsanjan in Iran’s southeastern Kerman Province. He was one of five sons and four daughters born to Mirza Ali Hashemi Bahramani, a prosperous pistachio farmer, and Mahbibi Safarian Hashemi.

At 14, he left his home village to study theology in the Muslim holy city of Qum, Iran, where he became a disciple of Ayatollah Khomeini. By some accounts, at the time of his death, Mr. Rafsanjani was the last surviving member of an inner circle of Islamic revolutionaries active during Ayatollah Khomeini’s exile from 1964 to 1979, fighting an often bloody cat-and-mouse contest with the notorious Savak secret police loyal to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

From 1963 to 1978, Mr. Rafsanjani was jailed five times for his opposition to the shah, but he remained in close contact with exiled clerics, including Ayatollah Khomeini, who was living in Najaf, Iraq.

During that period, in 1962, he married Effat Marashi, whose family included several respected Shiite clerics. They had five children — two daughters, Fatemeh and Faezeh, and three sons, Mohsen, Mehdi and Yaser.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.

In the turbulence after Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran, Mr. Rafsanjani was elected to Parliament, known as the Majlis, and became its speaker, serving in that position until 1989.

In many accounts of the maneuvering after Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989, Mr. Rafsanjani was credited with promoting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, possibly in the mistaken belief that he would prove a pliant figure.

Instead, Ayatollah Khamenei built his own power base. But Mr. Rafsanjani’s back-room dealings — often trading on his close relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini — earned him the nickname “kingmaker.”

During his presidency, Mr. Rafsanjani faced the challenge of reconstruction after the eight-year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While his economic liberalism and privatization policies were popular among Iran’s entrepreneurial classes, many poor Iranians perceived no improvement in their plight.

As president, Mr. Rafsanjani showed little tolerance of dissent. While he sought improved ties with the West, he insisted on Iran’s right to develop its nuclear program and did not lift a fatwa declared by Ayatollah Khomeini that enjoined Muslims to kill the writer Salman Rushdie.

Moreover, critics asserted that the Rafsanjani presidency coincided with the spread of corruption and the infiltration by the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of important economic enterprises.

By 2013, Mr. Rafsanjani was said to have built a family business empire that owned Iran’s second biggest airline, exercised a near monopoly on the lucrative pistachio trade and controlled the largest private university, Azad. The family’s business interests also included real estate, construction and oil deals. In 2003, Forbes magazine said Mr. Rafsanjani’s personal wealth exceeded $1 billion.

His time as president left a bitter legacy for many Iranians who struggled to get by. In parliamentary elections, he fared badly and was awarded a seat only after the intervention of a high-powered clerical panel, prompting him to withdraw from the legislature.

In 2005, Mr. Rafsanjani sought to run for the presidency again but lost in a runoff to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose tenure until 2013 was marked by hard-line nuclear policies, increasingly strained ties with the West and a mounting catalog of economic sanctions over Tehran’s efforts to expand its nuclear capability.

In presidential elections in June 2009, Mr. Rafsanjani supported the moderate Mir Hussein Moussavi, who lost to Mr. Ahmadinejad. The outcome was widely disputed, and many Iranian protesters died or were detained challenging the authorities in the streets. The protesters included Mr. Rafsanjani’s youngest daughter, Faezeh, who had campaigned for women’s rights and was arrested in large demonstrations against Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory.

In September 2009, Mr. Rafsanjani seemed to be sidelined when the authorities barred him from addressing Friday prayers in Tehran on Quds Day, an annual display of solidarity with Palestinians. Mr. Rafsanjani had delivered the Quds Day sermon for almost 25 years, but the authorities in 2009 feared his address would provoke antigovernment protests.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s second term was marked by mounting disputes with the United States and Israel over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its advances in missile technology. In 2011, Iran sided with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria during the Arab Spring, along with the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon, setting Tehran against Mr. Assad’s Western adversaries, including the United States.

In May 2013, Mr. Rafsanjani announced plans for a comeback, entering his name for presidential elections that June, calculating that, after the years of sanctions-driven decline under Mr. Ahmadinejad, Iranians would think that Mr. Rafsanjani’s reputation as a pragmatist and modernizer would offset some of the opprobrium attached to his staggering wealth. At the time, he argued that Iran was in an economic “danger zone” because of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s “amateurism.”

But he was disqualified by the Guardian Council, an electoral vetting body controlled by hard-liners. Mr. Rafsanjani had long served on another critical panel, the 88-member Assembly of Experts, which is charged with choosing a successor to the supreme leader. In 2016, Mr. Rafsanjani polled first in Tehran’s voting for the Assembly of Experts, whose role had assumed greater importance since Ayatollah Khamenei was treated for prostate cancer in 2014.

In the manner of Iran’s competing power centers, however, a hard-liner, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, who was already the head of the Guardian Council, was elected by the Assembly of Experts as its chairman. The vote signaled new obstacles for the modest changes sought by Mr. Rouhani in running the Islamic republic.

In another controversy, in May 2016, Mr. Rafsanjani was drawn into a ferocious debate over a meeting between his activist daughter, Faezeh, and Fariba Kamalabadi, a leader of the Baha’is, a minority religious group regarded by the clerical hierarchy as impure pagans.

Mr. Rafsanjani showed little sympathy for his daughter, calling the Baha’is “heretics” and saying publicly that his daughter had “committed a wrong deed” and should be ashamed of herself.

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