Home Global News What Rafsanjani's Death Really Means for Iran

What Rafsanjani's Death Really Means for Iran

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By James Hess, Ph.D.
Faculty Director and Associate Professor of Intelligence Studies at American Military University

On January 8, 2017, former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died at age 82 from a heart attack. Rafsanjani served as president of Iran from 1989 to 1997. He also attempted to run again in 2005, but the ruling clerics in Qom supported hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad instead.

Rafsanjani was a moderate who supported more secular forms of government and even wanted closer relations with the West. This is important because Iran’s legal framework is defined by a form of Islamic jurisprudence.

Since its revolution in 1979, Iran has followed the teachings of the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, also known as Ja’fari jurisprudence, per the Shi’a faith. Ja’fari jurisprudence, which is the largest by far of all schools of doctrine for Shi’a Muslims, believes in the teachings of the original 12 Imams.

Shi’a Imamate and Religious Leaders Control Iranian Law

These teachings, known as the imamate, are deemed infallible. Iran’s religious leaders in Qom are the interpreters and jurists of the imamate, and therefore they are the real power in Iran. The Grand Ayatollah, who leads the “Assembly of Experts” jurists, is Ali Khamenei.

The powers of the president of Iran come from the interpretations of the assembly, which enforce imamate doctrine. While he was president, Rafsanjani acknowledged the role of the imamate and frequently mentioned that all power derives from the assembly.

However, Rafsanjani also pointed to the teaching of consensus, which is another defining element of Ja’fari jurisprudence along with the Qur’an, Hadiths and interpretations of the imamate. Rafsanjani appointed councils to elicit the opinion of the people, which he argued is inherent in the doctrine of the imamate. Rafsanjani’s arguments appear in R. Scott Appleby’s Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East. 

Iran lost a powerful voice last week. That voice supported the religious institutions of the Shi’a faith, but also challenged the absolute authority of the clerics in Qom.

Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, has followed in some of Rafsanjani’s footsteps. His policies have tested Qom’s authority.

One thing is certain: If the religious leaders in Qom are able to rein in voices of reform, Iran could interpret the teachings of the imamate without challenge. That will not help the U.S. and the West deal with Iran.

About the Author

Dr. James Hess received his Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, where he studied improving analytical methodologies in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism environments. He is currently studying the relationship between Islamic jurisprudence and terrorism as an International Relations Research Fellow with the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

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