Iranians showed a face of unity at the funeral of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But his death may increase an internal power struggle between hard-liners and reformists.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians on Tuesday mourned the passing of former president Rafsanjani, who died over the weekend of a heart attack at the age 82.
Flanked by clerics and top government and military officials, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers over Rafsanjani's casket, topped by his white cleric's turban.
The funeral was attended by both reformists and hard-liners, despite a simmering rivalry between the two camps left bare by the death of Rafsanjani, a figure who was able to bridge the political divide.
Rafsanjani's casket was then taken from the funeral service at Tehran University down Revolution Street to its final resting place next to the mausoleum of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who led the Islamic revolution overthrowing the Shah in 1979.
A reformist who, as one of the Islamic revolution's leading figures, helped shield reformists from hard-liners, Rafsanjani's death is likely to be a major blow to the pragmatist camp.
Among those in attendance was President Hassan Rouhani, who is running for reelection in May elections after securing a nuclear deal with international powers last year. He was close to Rafsanjani, whose 2013 backing helped Rouhani win the presidency and pursue nuclear talks opposed by hard-liners.
Hard-liners, including Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, as well as parliament speaker Ali Larijani, and his brother, judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani were also in attendance.
Notably absent from the funeral was former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, an ally of Rafsanjani who is disliked by hard-liners. There were some reports he was prohibited from attending the funeral. Reformist opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, both under house arrest for their role in the 2011 Green movement, were also not in attendance.
Iranian Media reports said some mourners called for Mousavi and Karroubi to be released from house arrest, but police did not intervene. Rouhani's unwillingness or inability to get Mousavi and Karroubi released has been a major point of criticism from the reformist camp that may hurt him in May's election.
Rafsanjani's pragmatist positions and positive views on economic liberalization over time created tension between him and Khamenei and ideological hard-liners. But as one of Iran's richest men and a so-called "pillar of the Revolution" who was close to Khomeini, he was untouchable. He was a masterful operative able to maneuver through the complex web of Iranian politics.
In what was viewed as a power-sharing agreement at the time, Rafsanjani helped Khamenei to succeed Khomeini as new supreme leader of in 1989. Rafsanjani was elected president a few months later. He held the position until 1997.
Seemingly recognizing the rivalry with Rafsanjani, Khamenei said political differences could never "entirely break up" his nearly six decade relationship with the fellow cleric.
Some hard-liners are believed to be quietly cheering Rafsanjani's death. He was distrusted for protecting moderates, but at the same time some moderates criticized Rafsanjani for being an insider and accused him of killing dissidents.
Rafsanjani was head of the Expediency Council, an advisory, oversight and arbitration body. Khamenei will now appoint a new figure to head the council, which, if led by a hard-liner, could restrict some of Rouhani's future plans.
Rafsanjani was also an influential member of the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader. With Khamenei aged 77, the date for choosing the country's most powerful figure could happen at any time. Rafsanjani's absence from the body means there is less chance of a pragmatist becoming the next supreme leader.
cw/rt (AFP, AP, Reuters)