Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
(b. 1934) Iranian statesman and religious leader, President 1989–97
Iranian statesman who became president of Iran (1989–97) on the death of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Rafsanjani was born near Kerman, the son of a pistachio-nut-farming family of moderate wealth. From the age of fourteen he attended theological college at Qom, where he studied Islamic jurisprudence under Ruhollah Khomeini, becoming a mullah. Adopting Khomeini's teachings in both politics and religion, Rafsanjani became a committed enemy of the Shah's westernizing regime and an advocate of theocratic government. When Khomeini was exiled in 1963, Rafsanjani worked with the revolutionary underground; the following year he was gaoled for alleged complicity in the murder of the prime minister, Hassan Ali Mansour. Despite repeated imprisonment he managed to build up the family business and amassed a considerable personal fortune from land speculation.
Released from prison for the last time in 1978, Rafsanjani helped to orchestrate the mass demonstrations that led to the downfall of the Shah in January 1979. Following the triumphant return of Khomeini, he became prominent in the new Islamic government, acquiring a reputation for his ability and unswerving loyalty to the Ayatollah. As acting minister of the interior he was involved in the purging of dissidents in the early 1980s. Rafsanjani's own doubts about aspects of the regime seem to date from the mid-1980s, when he became privately convinced of the futility of the war with Iraq. Appointed acting commander-in-chief of the armed forces in 1988, he successfully persuaded Khomeini to accept UN peace terms. By this time he had also decided that Iran's blanket hostility to the West was unsustainable and in 1986 he became involved in the secret diplomacy with US negotiators that erupted as the Irangate scandal.
In the power struggle that followed Khomeini's death Rafsanjani outwitted more extreme figures and emerged at the head of his country's affairs. As president he performed a careful balancing act, on the one hand working patiently to improve Iran's relations with the West and on the other appeasing hardline Muslim opinion on such issues as the Rushdie affair. He kept his country studiedly neutral during the Gulf War of 1991. Having been re-elected with a reduced majority in 1993, Rafsanjani faced problems on several fronts during his second term: these included deepening economic and financial crisis, growing opposition from traditionalist clerics, and the imposition (1995) of US sanctions in response to Iran's alleged involvement in international terrorism. He retired in 1997, being succeeded by the liberal reformer Ayatollah Mohammed Khatemi.