TEHRAN — Iran began three days of mourning Monday after the death of ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the Islamic revolution who became a leading counterweight to hardliners.
Tributes poured in for the moderate cleric, including from President Hassan Rouhani, who was reportedly at Rafsanjani’s bedside before he died of a heart attack aged 82.
“Islam lost a valuable treasure, Iran an outstanding general, the Islamic revolution a courageous flag-bearer and the Islamic system a rare sage,” Rouhani said.
Iran’s political and religious leadership attended a memorial service at Hussainiya Jamaran, a religious hall in northern Tehran run by the family of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic.
Rafsanjani, who after serving for two terms became a cautious reformist to offset the hardliners clustered around a successor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be buried Tuesday at Khomenei’s mausoleum in southern Tehran.
At the start of a parliament session Monday, parliament speaker Ali Larijani paid tribute to the late leader, describing Rafsanjani as “a man for hard days whose name has been always been tied to the revolution and it will always be so.”
However, political analysts believe Rafsanjani’s absence will put Rouhani under more pressures by hardliners. Tehran-based analyst Hamid Reza Shokouhi said Rouhani and reformists in general have lost a powerful supporter in the next presidential election.
“Now, with about six months to the next presidential election, there are so many pressures on Rouhani’s administration,” Shokouhi said. “Rafsanjani could manage it, if he were still alive.”
A Tehran-based diplomatic analyst, Hassan Hanizadeh, told The Associated Press that Rafsanjani left a big vacuum in the Iranian field of diplomacy. During visits to Tehran, many foreign envoys met with Rafsanjani to discuss regional and internationals issues.
“Over the past 37 years, Rafsanjani always tried to pave the way for better ties with regional countries and the West,” said Hanizadeh, adding that he hopes “moderate figures will continue his policies.”
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also told Iranian media that “Rafsanjani’s viewpoints were always road-paving for us in the foreign policy field.”
Tehran residents also expressed their grief at the loss of Rafsanjani.
“I don’t know who is going to fill his place. He kept Iran safe from hardliners for so long,” said Maziar Rezaei, a real estate agent.
Zahra Qorbani, a tailor, said she was worried about her children’s future. She described the late leader as a “man who always tried to fix Iran’s relations with neighbors and the world.”
The ISNA news agency said his death Sunday was a “great loss for the moderates,” describing the ayatollah as “the sheikh of moderation.”
Rafsanjani was a key backer of Rouhani and supported Iran’s landmark nuclear deal with world powers.
Rouhani is expected to run for a second four-year term in a May vote and has now lost a key supporter in the crucial run-up to the election.
The front pages of Monday’s newspapers were dominated by the face of Rafsanjani, who served as president from 1989 to 1997, and black banners were raised on Tehran’s streets.
All music concerts and television comedy programs were called off as a sign of respect.
Rafsanjani’s youngest son Yaser, 46, thanked people mourning his father for their “loyalty and kindness.”
“I see scenes of affection that I cannot believe. People’s prayers for our father console our hearts,” he told state television.
Rafsanjani was born on August 25, 1934, in southern Iran to the family of a wealthy pistachio farmer.
He studied theology in the holy city of Qom before entering politics in 1963 after the shah’s police arrested Khomeini.
A confidant of Khomeini, Rafsanjani was the speaker of parliament for two consecutive terms until Khomeini’s death in 1989.
Rafsanjani’s presidency, a breathing space after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, was marked by reconstruction, cautious reform and repairs to Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbors.
But it was also marred by human rights violations, rampant inflation and difficult relations with Europe, not least with Britain after the “death sentence,” or fatwa, handed down to writer Salman Rushdie by Khomeini.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is expected to lead special Islamic prayers performed for the deceased during Tuesday’s funeral service.
State television on Monday looped old interviews by Rafsanjani and Khamenei, emphasizing the lasting bond between two stalwarts of the 1979 revolution.
‘I can die in peace’
Rafsanjani was always a member of Iran’s top clerical body, the Assembly of Experts, charged with appointing — and if required dismissing — the country’s supreme leader. He chaired the influential committee for several years.
The ayatollah played an important role in the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who succeeded him as president from 1997 to 2005.
Rafsanjani suffered a big blow when he lost in the presidential vote’s second round to hardline Ahmadinejad in 2005.
But he rose again, this time more determined in helping the reformist and moderate camps defeat ultra-conservatives, under whom Iran’s relations with the West plummeted.
In the run-up to the presidential elections in 2013, hand in hand with Khatami, the two figures played a key role in uniting and organizing people in favor of the moderate Rouhani, who could not have secured the office without reformist support.
In an interview last year Rafsanjani recounted events leading to the end if Ahmadinejad’s reign.
“I succeeded in partially changing the situation under the worst circumstances. People won in 2013, as bravely as they started the revolution,” he told the reformist Shargh daily.
“I can die in peace now, as people make their own choices.”