by Jesse Schatz
Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s death on January 8 was a major blow for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s traditionally marginalized reformists and moderates. The former Iranian president’s passing raised many questions about how the Iranian regime, without Rafsanjani’s moderating influence, might approach Tehran’s relations with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members. Iran’s upcoming presidential election, to be held next month, may turn in part on President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to defuse tension in the Islamic Republic’s relations with the GCC and its Western backers, something Rafsanjani endorsed and pushed for throughout his political career.
The GCC Reaction
Outside of Iran, many Arab leaders expressed their condolences at the news of Rafsanjani’s death, a symbolic gesture of his ability to traverse the Arab-Iranian divide. However, despite the rosy retrospection of Rafsanjani’s role in regional politics, reactions from citizens within the Gulf via social media outlets point to a more complicated legacy for the former president. Rafsanjani was seen by some as a reformer but by others simply as a member of the Iranian regime, which many in the GCC have accused of wreaking havoc and fomenting sectarian tension across the Arab world since its inception in 1979.
Many GCC officials expressed their condolences via Twitter. UAE foreign Minister Anwar Gargash tweeted, “Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died, he was one of the voices of Iranian political realism and moderation. His name is linked with the republic and the revolution against the Shah.” Bahrain’s foreign minister also tweeted: “May God have mercy on Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.” The Emir of Kuwait said he “prayed to Allah the almighty to bestow blessings on the deceased.” While less than their counterparts, leaders from both Qatar and Oman sent private messages of sympathy to Iranian leaders. Notably absent from these expressions of empathy, however, was any official statement from Saudi Arabia, indicating the extent to which Saudi-Iranian relations are still strained.
Outside the good-will displayed by several Arab government officials, many in the Persian Gulf were less sympathetic towards Rafsanjani’s memory, only further complicating his legacy. Some referenced Rafsanjani’s alleged involvement in disappearing political opponents within Iran, while others highlighted anti-Arab statements that Rafsanjani reportedly made. In fact, rather than expressing condolences, in the days following Rafsanjani’s death Saudi state-run news outlets aired a decades-old interview that accused Rafsanjani of perpetrating a mass execution during the Iran-Iraq war. As rival factions compete to take control over the narrative of Rafsanjani’s politics, what remains to be seen is if his goals (as least as far as they relate to regional politics) will be taken up by a new generation of moderate politicians in both Iran and the GCC.
Rafsanjani’s Death and Iranian Politics
Hoping to unseat Rouhani in the upcoming election, Iran’s hardliners (principlists) have already used anti-American/Western sentiments to advance their agenda. In opposition to Rouhani’s diplomatic overtures to, and compromises with, Washington, many of Iran’s principlists are railing against their president, accusing him of making too many concessions to Iran’s traditional adversaries and naively trusting the West. Consequently, the outcome of this election will bear major implications for the Gulf region and the prospects for a thaw in Iranian-GCC relations.
Conflicting political factions within Iran quickly worked to ensure that Rafsanjani’s legacy could be used to consolidate popular support for their side. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni expressed sadness over Rafsanjani’s death, calling him an “old friend and comrade.” Privately, however, Rafsanjani’s death comes as a relief for Iran’s conservatives, who now have full control of the Expediency Council–in which Rafsanjani was often a lone voice of moderation. The performative aspects that took place at Rafsanjani’s highly publicized funeral also reiterate the importance of his legacy to Iranian authorities. Using mourning-music to drown out the sound of his protesting supporters shows that the desire to present a sense of false political unity to the Iranian public remains high but tacitly acknowledges that the country remains deeply divided. Without Rafsanjani serving as a bridge between reformers and hardliners, Rouhani may be the only figure respected on both sides. However, without Rafsanjani’s presence many question Rouhani’s ability to challenge the conservative religious establishment.
The State of Iran-GCC Relations
Prior to his death, Rafsanjani played a critical role in attempting to mend relations between his country and the GCC members, most importantly Saudi Arabia. As recently as 2009 Rafsanjani expressed his desire for normalized relations between Tehran and Riyadh, saying, “Iran does not inherently have any issues with Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries.” Later he called cooperative relations with Saudi Arabia “a priority in our constitution.” As a roadmap for reconciliation, he pointed to cooperation between the two nations following the Iran-Iraq War, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia had supported Saddam Hussein during the conflict.
In 2014, a highly publicized kiss between Rafsanjani and Riyadh’s ambassador to Tehran sparked new hopes for reconciliation. Yet in light of political crises in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, even Rafsanjani stated that Saudi-Iranian relations may have reached an impasse. Still, Rafsanjani remained hopeful, going as far as devising a ‘roadmap-to-reconciliation,’ which he saw as a solution to conflicts in Bahrain and Lebanon, as well as a launching pad for tackling the Syrian and Yemeni crises.
More recently, Rouhani’s visits to Kuwait and Oman last month underscored his administration’s continued commitment to improving Iran-GCC relations. Rouhani’s visit followed Kuwait’s offer to act as a mediator between Tehran and Riyadh. Signs of improving relations were further signaled in early March when Kuwaiti officials sent Rouhani a follow-up letter reiterating their interest in Kuwaiti-Iranian cooperation. Unsurprisingly, Oman made a similar offer to act as a mediator in the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry. However, despite these two visits, officials within the Rouhani administration made clear that opportunities for cooperation would “pass like a cloud” if not met by similar outreach by the rest of the GCC.
The Post-Election Outlook
With Iran’s next presidential election quickly approaching, the time for a new group of Iranian moderates to pick up Rafsanjani’s mantle is running out. Newly invigorated by the Trump administration’s provocative statements regarding Iran and Islam, conservative Iranian hardliners are busy exciting their core constituents. Although all signs point towards Rouhani’s intentions to run for re-election, he may struggle to build the same coalition without Rafsanjani’s support. As stated by Iranian Professor Mohammad Marandi, “He [Rafsanjani] was a very powerful figure for Mr. Rouhani to rely on… Many worked with him because of that support. The passing of Mr. Rafsanjani complicates the president’s position and make his reelection less certain.”
Those in the region as well as the larger international community who wish to see increased cooperation between Iran and the GCC states have a much at stake in this election. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has proven himself to be of the same stock as Rafsanjani, saying as recently as January: “I do not see any reason why Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies towards each other. We can in fact work together to put an end to the miserable conditions of the people in Syria and Yemen and Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.”
Similar to Rouhani, Zarif has recently visited the Gulf. Most recently he came to Qatar at the beginning of March. While Iran and Saudi Arabia have avoided talking to one another regarding regional conflicts in recent months, the two giants reached an agreement earlier this month concerning protections for Iranian citizens during the upcoming 2017 Hajj. Although that agreement doesn’t address the fundamental issues plaguing the Middle East, any talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia are a necessary first step towards achieving greater stability in the tumultuous region.
The stakes of the upcoming election for Iranian moderates, the GCC, and Washington could not be higher, as the outcome is certain to impact several regional conflicts. If the conservative establishment captures the presidency, the conciliatory positions expressed by Zarif would certainly be drowned out by an increase in Iran’s support for Shi‘ite militants in Iraq and Syria, and the Zaidi Houthi rebels in Yemen, at the expense of Saudi/GCC interests. Already in Trump’s short presidential tenure his hardline position against the Iranian Nuclear Agreement, as well as his (short-lived) appointment of Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor, have ignited Iran’s conservatives at a crucial time.
Considering the complicated and longstanding tensions between the GCC states (chiefly Saudi Arabia) and Iran, Rafsanjani was perhaps the only Iranian politician with the political capital to make progress on key issues in Yemen and Syria. With Rafsanjani gone, moderates have tried to use his memory to bolster support ahead of the 2017 elections. Rouhani, however, has struggled to build a coalition without Rafsanjani’s support to legitimize his vision for Iran. Meanwhile, encouraged by Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Iranian rhetoric, Ayatollah Khamenei hopes to take advantage of the political vacuum. Unquestionably, a Rouhani loss could lead to new complications in the Middle East.
Jesse Schatz is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.