Rafsanjani, Iran leader whose life mirrored nation's, dies

Former Iran president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani waves to journalists in 2013 as he registers his candidacy for the upcoming presidential election with his daughter, Fatemeh, second right, at the interior ministry, in Tehran, Iran. Iranian state media said Sunday that Rafsanjani has died at age 82.
Ebrahim Noroozi ~ Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, died Sunday after a decades-long career in the ruling elite, where his moderate views were not always welcome but his cunning guided him through revolution, war and the country's turbulent politics.

The political survivor's life spanned the trials of Iran's modern history, from serving as a close aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during the 1979 Islamic Revolution to acting as a go-between in the Iran-Contra deal.

He helped found Iran's contested nuclear program, but later backed the accord with world powers to limit it in exchange for sanctions relief.

Rafsanjani, who showed ruthlessness while in power but later pushed for reforms, died Sunday after suffering a heart attack, state media reported. He was 82.

Iranian media said he was hospitalized north of Tehran earlier Sunday, where doctors performed CPR in vain for nearly an hour and a half before declaring him dead.

A female state newscaster's voice quivered as she read the news.

Rafsanjani, "after a life full of restless efforts in the path of Islam and revolution, had departed for lofty heaven," she said.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Rafsanjani an "old friend and comrade" and said his loss is "difficult and life-decreasing."

The government announced three days of mourning, and a funeral was expected to be held Tuesday.

Rafsanjani served as president from 1989 to 1997, during a period of changes in Iran. At the time, the country was struggling to rebuild its economy after a devastating 1980s war with Iraq, while cautiously allowing some wider freedoms, as seen in Iran's highly regarded film and media industry.

He also oversaw key developments in Iran's nuclear program by negotiating deals with Russia to build an energy-producing reactor in Bushehr, which went into service in 2011 after long delays.

Behind the scenes, he directed the secret purchase of technology and equipment from Pakistan and elsewhere.

In an interview published in October, Rafsanjani acknowledged the 1980 to 1988 war with Iraq, which killed 1 million people, led Iran to consider seeking nuclear weapons.

"Our basic doctrine was always for a peaceful nuclear application, but it never left our mind that if one day we should be threatened and it was imperative, we should be able to go down the other path," he said. "But we never went."

The cleric managed to remain within Iran's ruling theocracy after leaving office, but an attempt to return to the presidency in 2005 was dashed by the electoral victory of the more hard-line Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rafsanjani later was branded a dissenter by many conservatives for his criticism of the crackdown that followed Ahmadinejad's re-election in 2009.

But after years of waning influence, Rafsanjani was handed an unexpected political resurgence with the 2013 victory of a fellow moderate, Hassan Rouhani, giving him an insider role in efforts that would culminate in the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Some analysts believe Rafsanjani was kept within the ruling fold as a potential mediator with America and its allies in the standoff over Iran's nuclear program.

His past stature as a trusted Khomeini ally also offered him political protection.

Rafsanjani was a top commander in the war with Iraq and played a key role in convincing Khomeini to accept a cease-fire after years of crippling stalemate.