Rafsanjani's Death Could Signal More Freedom In Iran

In a kleptocratic oligarchy, the government communicates with its subjects via official, state-sponsored distortion and illusion.
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The suspicious death of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Jan. 8 brings to mind words spoken by gangster Bugsy Siegel when he downplayed the Mafia's lethal ways amid the corruption of 1940's Las Vegas. He said: "Don't worry, we only kill each other."

The same might be true in the murderous government of 21st-Century Iran.

In a kleptocratic oligarchy, the government communicates with its subjects via official, state-sponsored distortion and illusion. For example, when a public figure dies by assisted drowning, poisoning or "falling off a cliff," it may be reported as suicide or a heart attack.

Former president Rafsanjani's "heart attack" is rumored to have occurred after he met with commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, and claims have surfaced that he was poisoned and/or drowned in a swimming pool. This version is being circulated by Iranian exiles as well as commentators on social media and Iran diaspora TV programs.

Iran's state-sponsored media offered conflicting details about the time and place of his death, and skeptics ask why no autopsy was done.

Rafsanjani's son, Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, stood in front of the hospital where his father allegedly died and repeatedly screamed to a large crowd, "They killed my father!" Rafsanjani's son, it should be pointed out, was convicted of corruption by the Tehran Revolutionary Court in 2015. He is an enemy of the state.

In Iran, it's difficult for an outsider to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

While it's possible the elder Rafsanjani was assassinated because he was seen as a moderate who opposed the regime and sought rapprochement with the west, his own record wouldn't sound very good during a funeral service reading.

During his term as president (1989-97), thousands were executed in Iran for alleged anti-Islamic beliefs or behaviors, all without legal due process. As deputy commander-in-chief of the regime's armed forces in 1988, he played a dominant role in the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners in jails across the country.

Rafsanjani began his rise to power by accusing the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran of corruption, but as president, he didn't hesitate to feather his own family's nest.

According to Forbes Magazine, the 1979 revolution transformed the Rafsanjani clan into a commercial conglomerate. One brother headed the country's largest copper mine; another took control of the state-owned TV network; a brother-in-law became governor of Kerman province, while a cousin ran an outfit that dominated Iran's $400 million pistachio export business; a nephew and one of Rafsanjani's sons took key positions in the Ministry of Oil; another son headed the $700 million Tehran Metro construction project.

Political conflict in Iran is less about ideology and policy than it is about fear of any enemy's ascent and how that could lead to death for the current regime - actual, physical death.

We have an Afghan saying that goes something like this: "There isn't a good man among the living, and no bad men among the dead." This explains why, in death, Rafsanjani can be painted as a martyr for a cause, rather than a thief and butcher.

But perhaps Rafsanjani's death serves as a harbinger of change, as it sheds light on potential deep fractures within the power structure of Iran. It seems the Ayatollahs' grip on Iran's populace could be weakening.

Rafsanjani challenged Iran Supreme Leader Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, accusing him of putting himself above the will of the people. By that, he meant Khamenei elevated himself above the popularly elected president. Rafsanjani argued that the Islamic Republic should be transformed into a people's republic. He also proposed that the president preside over all, including the Ayatollahs and their Supreme Leader.

Khamenei opposed Rafsanjani's bid for the presidency in 2013, and perhaps Rafsanjani is dead today because Khamenei didn't want him to run for president this spring or support the moderate Hassan Rouhani for reelection. Three other candidates have already announced they will challenge Rouhani for the presidency.

On the other hand, perhaps Rafsanjani is dead today because he was 82 years old and had a heart attack. Unfortunately, Iran's state-run media is so untrustworthy, we may never know.

This much we do know: today's Iranian citizens are more educated and pro-western than ever, and, while they still labor under the yoke of tyranny, a new light may be rising on the horizon. As former Soviet Georgia leader Eduard Shevardnadze said, "The future belongs to freedom."

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