Ashgabat, 11 January 2017 (nCa) — The sudden demise of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has left a huge void in Iran, the shape and extent of which is not clear immediately.
Hashemi, as he was known in Iran, was a man with many hats – He was perhaps the closest aide of Imam Khomeini, the founder of the theocratic revolution in Iran, he was the one who managed to persuade Khomeini to end the Iran-Iraq war, he was the speaker of the national assembly during the most difficult years, he was the president of the country during the period when national unity and economic rebuild were almost impossible to balance but both were equally indispensible, he was the force behind the rise of the fledgling moderates and ultimately he was the beloved leader whose funeral attracted some 2.5 million mourners from all walks of life, all schools of thought and every political orientation.
His disappearance has altered the political equation in Iran and prompts Central Asia to reassess the possibilities and options.
The far right in Iran is bound to assert itself in a big way. Some disturbing signs are in view already. — Former president Khatami, a moderate and a staunch ally of Hashemi Rafsanjani was not permitted to attend the funeral. Also, even before the last rites of Hashemi, four Iranian speed boats tried to approach a convoy of American navy ships and steered on a collision course up to less than a kilometer from the main ship in the convoy. They stopped only when the American ship fired warning shots.
Central Asia has seen that moderates in Iran try to build genuine relations with the region but hardliners have a different set of priorities. Hashemi was the first president to stop trying to export the revolution to the region and prioritize economic partnership. Whatever mutually beneficial interaction exists between Iran and Central Asia, was built during the tenure of Hashemi as the president and expanded further by the other moderate – Khatami. Rouhani, endorsed and fully supported by Hashemi, is also moving in the same direction.
If the hardliners soar, they may question the different aspects of the nuclear deal, as is obvious from the sporadic statements of the supreme leader Khamenei and some other leaders on the far right. This may slowdown the dismantling of sanctions and obstruct the full restoration of bank transactions that are so vital for all kinds of economic activity.
Together with this, we should also keep in view that Iran is capable of all kinds of surprises. For instance, the NIGC (National Iranian Gas Company) created a plethora of noises at the start of this year when it failed to browbeat Turkmenistan into putting the settlement of outstanding debts on the back burner. Nevertheless, within a few days, Iran started the process of forming a trilateral partnership with Turkmenistan and Armenia for the transit of the Turkmen gas to Armenia.
Much will depend on the outcome of the presidential elections in Iran that are scheduled for 19 May 2017. The candidates can apply for registration up to 16 April 2017, therefore, we still don’t know if some exceptionally heavyweight contender will enter the race to blow the chances of Rouhani for reelection.
What is clear right away is that the moderate voices have lost the man who was the bridge between the religious establishment and the moderates and the voice of dissent from within the system.
At the same time, the attitude of the Trump administration toward Iran is another X factor for now.
As such, Central Asia can just wait and see.