by Eldar Mamedov
In October 2013, I was part of a delegation of the Social-Democratic Group of the European Parliament (EP) to Iran. The trip, which took place shortly before the Geneva nuclear interim agreement was reached between the P5+1 and Iran, was meant as a confidence-building measure between the EU and Iran, aimed at widening the space for diplomacy and re-establishing connections after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s toxic presidency. As such, it was the first official visit from the EP to Iran after a seven-year hiatus provoked by a string of misunderstandings, petty politicking and overbidding from both sides, but mostly due to the Ahmadinejad administration’s poisonous rhetoric and flagrant human rights violations, which made it politically unfeasible for mainstream European politicians to visit the country.
Among the Iranian officials that the delegation, led by the then-Social-Democratic-Group President Hannes Swoboda, met with in Tehran was the Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. At that time, Rafsanjani was the head of the Expediency Council, an institution he’d created to mediate between the different branches of power in Iran. More importantly, he was imbued with the mystique of someone who, together with the late Ayatollah Khomeini, was perhaps the most consequential leader of the Islamic Republic. Rafsanjani was the ultimate powerbroker, whose political skills and acumen prompted Ali Vaez, the Iran expert at the International Crisis Group, to call him the “Ayatollah Machievelli.” Rafsanjani did not defy expectations.
On a personal level, in a marked contrast to some decidedly dour characters representing the Islamic Republic, he came across as a gregarious man clearly at ease with a European delegation that comprised several female MPs. He was keenly aware of his place in the history of the Islamic Republic. For instance, he spoke at some length of his role as the “Commander of Reconstruction,” as his supporters called him, during the years following the end of the Iran-Iraq war when he served his two terms as Iran’s president (1989-1997). Like other Iranian officials meeting their Western counterparts, he didn’t fail to complain about the West’s backing of Saddam Hussein during that war, or the support that the radical Iranian cult Mojaheddeen-e Khalq (MEK), bitterly opposed to the Islamic Republic and removed from the EU terror list only in 2009, still enjoys in some quarters in the EU and the US.
This latter point had an intense personal connotation for Rafsanjani. Like other top figures of the newly minted Islamic Republic, including the current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, he was a target of an assassination attempt by the MEK in a massive terror blast in 1981. Later, in a culmination of a bloody power struggle, the authorities massacred thousands of real and alleged MEK prisoners in what surely remains a stain on the history and reputation of the Islamic Republic.
Yet overall in that meeting with the European MPs Ayatollah Rafsanjani lived up to his reputation as a moderate and a proponent of engagement with Europe. He spoke fondly of the days when, in his role as the president, he negotiated the normalization of relations with Germany. This détente included an end to assassinations of the Iranian dissidents in Europe—another dark chapter in the history of the Islamic Republic, in which Rafsanjani was deeply involved – and the beginning of what was known as a “critical dialogue” between the EU and Iran. Despite many false starts in his long career—such as a bold effort to reach out to the United States in 1996 by offering Conoco, an oil major, a $1 billion deal to develop offshore Iranian oil and gas fields, only to be punished with new sanctions by the Clinton administration—Rafsanjani was quite forward-looking and confident that at least Iran’s ties with Europe stood a fair chance of prospering.
Subsequent events have proved him half right. European diplomacy, spearheaded by the High Representative for the EU Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, played an important role in achieving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). It continues to play this role through Mogherini’s chairing of the Joint Commission tasked with overseeing the implementation of the JCPOA. European politicians and businesses are busy exploring venues of cooperation with their Iranian counterparts. Iran Task Force, established in the Mogherini-led European External Action Service (EEAS), coordinates the outreach of the EU institutions and confidence-building through concrete projects in areas as diverse as aviation safety and banking. In October 2016, the European Parliament adopted a forward-looking and detailed report emphasizing mutual respect, a relationship of equals (extremely important notions for the Iranians of any persuasion), and further engagement with Iran. And the Council of the EU, the bloc’s main foreign policy decision-making body, has ratified this approach by adopting its own Conclusions in November 2016.
These developments reflect a certain level of institutionalization of the EU engagement with Iran. The strategy is to create a dense network of connections and interdependencies that would make the survival of the relationship less reliance on single individuals. In this sense, although the EU certainly has reasons to lament Rafsanjani’s passing as an influential Iranian advocate for rapprochement, it won’t change much in the way the EU engages Iran. If anything, the disappearance of a strong ally of the moderate president Hassan Rouhani, up for a re-election in April 2016, and the uncertainty associated with the Trump presidency, should mobilize the EU to double down on its commitment to normalize relations with Iran.
One area where Rafsanjani’s hand will clearly be missed is regional security and relations with the Persian Gulf states. In its Global Strategy, adopted in 2016, the EU announced its intention to pursue a balanced engagement with both Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Unlike the US, the EU is well placed to mediate between regional actors, especially Iran and Saudi Arabia, to end their proxy wars. Rafsanjani had ties with top GCC leaders and was respected by them as an elder statesman. His passing definitely removes a powerful advocate of lowering tensions with Saudi Arabia and other GCC states. More assertive elements, tied to the Revolutionary Guards, might benefit as a result. This will make the EU’s task more difficult.
Ultimately, only time will tell whether Ayatollah Rafsanjani´s passing is more than a mostly psychological blow to the supporters of closer relations between Iran and the West. That it is not immediately seen as threatening to upend the rapprochement already testifies to the ground covered since that memorable EP visit to Iran in October 2013. Iran´s foreign policy is in the steady hands of the Rouhani administration and its foreign minister Javad Zarif. The death of Rafsanjani, however, also reminds us that the legacy of moderation and pragmatism can only be safeguarded if it is constantly built upon. That will be the main challenge in the coming months.
Photo: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani announcing his candidacy in 2013 election.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.