A protégé of the Islamic Republic’s first Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei, Rafsanjani was a founding father of the regime that came to power in the 1979 Iranian revolution. With Khomenei’s death in 1989, Rafsanjani, sensing a political opportunity, supported a political rival for Supreme Ruler, Ali Khamenei.
Rafsanjani’s gambit failed; Khamenei quickly consolidated power. As Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-born Wall Street Journal reporter, noted, the “regime’s Western apologists framed” the rivalry between the two “as a genuine ideological conflict between the ‘hard-line’ Mr. Khamenei and the ‘pragmatic,’ ‘moderate’ Rafsanjani (along with others, such as current President Hassan Rouhani).”
However, as Ahmari pointed out:
“In 1992, during Rafsanjani’s presidency, Iranian operatives gunned down four dissidents at a Berlin restaurant. The ‘pragmatic’ Rafsanjani regularly sat on a ‘Committee for Special Operations’ that oversaw foreign assassinations, according to an Iranian intelligence officer who testified at a criminal trial in Germany.”
Rafsanjani was also President when Iran was reportedly involved in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, both in Buenos Aires. Similarly, the so-called “modern mullah” was president when Iranian agents bombed the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, murdering 19 U.S.-service men and women.
Even out of office, Rafsanjani made clear that he shared his regime’s objectives, saying in 2001: “If one day the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything.”
Such facts were missing in the media coverage of Rafsanjani’s death. The New York Times editorial board, for instance, completely omitted Rafsanjani’s role in the assassination of dissidents, the Argentinean bombings, and the Khobar Towers terror attack. Instead, The Times bemoaned Rafsanjani’s loss as “The Untimely Death of an Iranian Pragmatist.”
Pragmatism, however, is not synonymous with moderation. And as a July 2015 Op-Ed in The Hill by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) noted, “moderation” is a relative term; what passes for moderate in the Islamic Republic could hardly be considered the same in much of the liberal West. Unfortunately, some media outlets have failed to offer necessary nuance.
An Associated Press brief in USA Today told readers that Rafsanjani was a “wily political survivor and multimillionaire mogul who remained among the ruling elite despite moderate views.” That he was able to remain among Iran’s ruling class, in part because he held—if in different shades and tones—much of their antisemitic, anti-Western views, went unmentioned.
Moreover, the description of Rafsanjani as a multimillionaire mogul obscures reality: the Iranian leader used his position to enrich himself. Indeed, as Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies highlighted, President Rafsanjani was responsible for bringing “the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into the economy, establishing the iron grip it still holds on Iran’s manufacturing, banking, and private sector.”
In his statement on Rafsanjani’s death, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei spoke of the “differences in opinion” between himself and the former Iranian President. In addition to their rivalry, the two often differed on strategy and tactics. As a Jan. 9, 2017 report by the American Enterprise Institute noted, Rafsanjani opposed aspects of Iran’s ballistic missile program and publicly disagreed with the Ayatollah’s brutal suppression of the 2009 “Green Movement” protests.
However, both men worked to create and shore up the theocratic dictatorship centered in Tehran. And when holding the levers of power, both worked to spread Iran’s revolution abroad. That Rafsanjani was a “survivor,” as the AP claimed, is true. But he was able to survive because he was of the regime, not a part from it.
Indeed, in his eulogy, Ayatollah Khamenei approvingly cited the “common experience” between the two founders of the revolutionary state.
During the debates in the U.S. over the so-called Iran nuclear deal, many Western news outlets referred to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani as a “moderate.” In so doing, they were often parroting, unintentionally or not, a narrative that the Obama administration created, as deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged in a May 2016 New York Times magazine interview. But Rouhani, like Rafsanjani, also played a key role in the assassination of dissidents on European soil, terror attacks in the Western hemisphere, and the exporting of Iran’s murderous ethos.
In the months before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some U.S. media outlets, including those noted above, have bemoaned the spread of “fake news.” But when it comes to the publication and proliferation of untrue stories, addressing tales of Iranian “moderates” might be a good place to start.
The writer is a Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America