Will Rafsanjani’s death bring about change in Iran’s regional policy?

Al Monitor| Hamidreza Azizi: Given that former president and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was one of the most influential politicians in Iran, and most importantly, one of the main supporters of President Hassan Rouhani, there have been many discussions about the impact of his death on Iranian politics. At the domestic level, the cornerstone of the debate is the future of Iranian moderate and Reformist forces after their loss of a reliable backer —especially ahead of the May presidential elections.

But this is not the only concern. The death of Rafsanjani has also sparked questions about the future path of Iran’s foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. Rafsanjani commanded respect throughout the region, especially in many of the Persian Gulf Arab nations. This was apparent in the reactions of Arab leaders to his death, several of whom sent warm condolences and appreciated his positive role in improving relations between Iran and its neighbors. In fact, Rafsanjani’s positive reputation in the region developed under the years of his presidency (1989-1997), when he made great efforts to reach a detente with the Arab world, while playing an active role in addressing the problems facing Arab and Muslim countries. Furthermore, he was successful in bringing about what could be described as rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, he always remained an advocate of Tehran-Riyadh cooperation to solve regional problems.

These considerations have caused some observers to speculate that Rafsanjani’s death could strike a further blow to Iran’s already deteriorated relations with some of its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia. However, a deeper analysis of the core logic of such an argument makes it evident that it is based on a false analogy between two completely different eras.

When Rafsanjani became president in 1989, Iran was in a very bad state caused by eight years of war with Iraq. The devastation caused by Saddam Hussein’s invasion and its subsequent negative impact on Iran’s economy left the new president with no choice but to concentrate on the reconstruction and economic revival of the country. To achieve these objectives, it was necessary to have stable relations with neighboring countries, refrain from inflaming points of regional rivalry and adopt a more cooperative regional policy. This overall trend meant Iran had to devise a more inward policy agenda, with economic considerations at the very top.

 

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