(CNSNews.com) – Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died Sunday aged 82, was linked in the latter years of his life “reformists” including current President Hasan Rouhani, but during his long career he was associated with some of the regime’s most controversial actions, including mass-casualty terror attacks and the assassinations of exiled dissidents.
Iranian media reported that Rafsanjani died in at Tehran's Shohada Hospital after a heart attack. Rouhani was seen visiting the hospital shortly before the news broke.
Rafsanjani played an outsized political and religious role in the life of the Islamic republic, serving as president from 1989-1997 (after a stint as parliamentary speaker), but also heading two of the regime’s most important institutions – the Assembly of Experts, an 88-member body of top religious scholars which nominates the supreme leader; and the Expediency Council, a body that advises the supreme leader.
He sought a return to the presidency in 2005, narrowly winning a six-way first round but losing in a runoff to “hardliner” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani become one of Ahmadinejad’s sharpest critics.
Over the last decade of his life he was often portrayed as a “pragmatist” or “moderate,” and the so-called “Rafsanjani-Rouhani bloc” backed reformers in elections last February for parliament and the Assembly of Experts. (Reformers made gains although hardliners continue to dominate both.)
With Rouhani running for another presidential term in elections in May this year, the loss of the influential Rafsanjani will be seen as a setback to the incumbent.
For the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), however, Rafsanjani’s death spells the removal of a pillar of a regime which it hopes to see defeated altogether.
NCRI leader Maryam Rajavi described his death as the collapse of “one of the two pillars and key to the equilibrium of the religious fascism ruling Iran.”
“Rafsanjani, who had always been the regime's number two, acted as its balancing factor and played a decisive role in its preservation. Now, the regime will lose its internal and external equilibrium,” she said in a statement that also referred to the “approaching overthrow” of the clerical regime.
Rajavi said Rafsanjani had over the 38 years since the Iranian revolution “played a critical role in suppression at home and export of terrorism abroad as well as in the quest to acquire nuclear weapons.”
(The NCRI/People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran was a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization until its delisting in 2012. It enjoys considerable support in Washington, including from some prominent advisors to President-elect Donald Trump.)
In 2006, Rafsanjani was implicated by Argentinian investigators in one of the deadliest instances of Iranian terrorism abroad – a 1994 suicide truck bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, in which 85 people were killed.
The investigators accused Iran of instructing its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, to carry out the bombing. They issued arrest warrants for Rafsanjani, seven other senior Iranians, and a Lebanese national, Hezbollah terrorist chief Imad Mughniyah.
At Argentina’s request, Interpol then issued red notices – the organization’s equivalent of arrest warrants – for five of the Iranians and Mughniyah. On legal advice, however, Interpol declined to issue red notices for Rafsanjani and two others named – former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and Iran’s ambassador to Argentina at the time of the bombing, Hadi Soleimanpour. They remain wanted by Argentina.
(The other accused Iranians were former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Mohsen Rezai, former intelligence chief Ali Fallahijan, commander of an IRGC Quds Force special operations unit Ahmad Vahidi, and two officials based at Iran’s embassy in Buenos Aires, Mohsen Rabbani and Ahmad Reza Asghari. Mughniyah was killed in a bomb blast in Damascus in 2008. The Iranians all remain at large.)
Iran denied Argentina’s allegations, which some of the implicated men blamed on “Zionists.”
Rafsanjani was also accused of ordering while president the killings of prominent dissidents abroad, including the assassination in 1992 of four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant called Mykonos.
A German court in 1996 ruled that the Iranian regime under Rafsanjani was directly responsible for the Mykonos killings, a finding which the State Department said at the time provided further proof that Iran was a terrorist state.
A later report by the U.S.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center said the Mykonos killings were “designed to intimidate and disrupt the activities of political opponents of the regime.”
Other Iranian dissidents killed in similar circumstances during Rafsanjani’s presidency included Kazem Rajavi of the NCRI – a former Iranian ambassador to the U.N. and Maryam Rajavi’s brother-in-law – who was shot dead near Geneva in 1990. Swiss investigators accused the Iranian regime of responsibility and authorities issued an arrest warrant for Fallahijan, Rafsanjani’s intelligence minister.
Other assassinations blamed on the Rafsanjani government include those of the NCRI representative in Rome, Mohammad Hussein Naghdi, shot dead on a street in the Italian capital in March 1993; and Zahra Rajabi, the NCRI’s representative on refugee issues, shot dead with an NCRI colleague in an Istanbul apartment in February 1996.
The U.S. government first designated Iran as a state-sponsor of terrorism in 1984, and to this day continues to describe it as the world’s leading terror-sponsor.