Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's fourth president and a towering figure in the country, has died at the age of 82, according to Iranian state media.
For decades, the Shiite Muslim cleric played an outsize role in Iranian politics. An aide to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the country's 1979 revolution, Rafsanjani served on the Revolutionary Council that helped transform the newborn Islamic Republic from a monarchy into a theocracy.
During the 1980s, Rafsjani boosted his public profile in weekly sermons to the country and helped guide Iran's military operations in a costly eight-year war with its neighbor Iraq.
When Khomeini died in 1989, then-President Ali Khamenei was named his successor as supreme leader in Iran, and Rafsjani was elected president.
He served in that role from 1989 to 1997, during which time he embarked on a program of economic reform and insisted on constitutional reforms that gave significantly more executive power to the office of the president.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that Rafsanjani enjoyed a kind of renaissance as an influential reformer late in his political career.
"Rafsanjani tried to run for president again in 2005, but was defeated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He made another attempt in 2013, but in a controversial move, Iran's guardian council disqualified him.
"Voters instead chose the candidate most aligned with Rafsanjani's pragmatic views, Hassan Rouhani. Many Iranians saw Rafsanjani as a mentor to Rouhani, and his influence rose."
Rafsanjani played a crucial role as a bridge between moderates of modern Iranian politics and some of the hard-line politicians of the preceding generation. This was particularly true in the debate over diplomatic relations with the U.S.
"Rafsanjani was a man who was always anti-American, stuck to Iranian ideology, but at the same time was preaching that there should be relations with the United States — that there should be an update domestically of Iran's harsh ideological rules," Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Erdbrink adds: "He is and was a good friend of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Khamenei, but at the same time had the stature to criticize his and other policies. With him gone, it will be harder to voice certain criticisms."
Just months from Iran's presidential election in May, Rafsanjani's death also leaves President Rouhani without his "political soul mate," in the words of The Washington Post. Rouhani, whose signature nuclear deal with the U.S. is already in danger, now faces an even more inclement political climate with Rafsjani gone.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Iran's former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died. He was 82 years old. He was one of the leaders of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. He served as president from 1989 to 1997. And most recently, he was the leader of the moderate reformist movement. Thomas Erdbrink is the Tehran bureau chief for The New York Times, and he joins us now on the line from Tehran.
Thanks so much for being with us.
THOMAS ERDBRINK, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we understand Rafsanjani died from a stroke. What's been the reaction in Iran?
ERDBRINK: Well, of course, Rafsanjani was a towering figure here in Iran, as you mentioned in the short bio you just said. He was a man - a politician, a man of all seasons, very much loved and also very much hated at the same time. People have gathered around the hospital where he has died at 6 o'clock local time. But at the same time, other people are not so sad. They feel that he hasn't been the best leader. But overall, people see him as one of the key leaders of the revolution and a man whose death will mean that there will be some change here in Iran.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you say change, what do you mean?
ERDBRINK: Well, he was the leader of this moderate reformist faction. He was also a huge supporter of President Hassan Rouhani, who is in power right now. Now, Mr. Rouhani is up for elections in May. And Mr. Rafsanjani's support meant that a lot of people would gather behind Mr. Rouhani. Now, with not only the nuclear deal that Mr. Rouhani engineered in danger and now also the support of Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani not present, it could mean that his re-election is in trouble.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What does Rafsanjani's death mean more broadly for the reformist movement in Iran?
ERDBRINK: Well, Mr. Rafsanjani was a man who was always anti-American, stuck to Iranian ideology but, at the same time, was preaching, if you will, a sort of political line, saying that there should be relations with the United States. There should be an update domestically of Iran's harsh ideological rules, if you will. Now, with him gone, it is much harder for the reformers and the moderates to sort of find a voice to say this because there's just not so many people around of his generation that would agree with him.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We have about 50 seconds left. What would you say his legacy is? How will he be remembered?
ERDBRINK: Well, he will be remembered as really a key player - a king-maker even - in Iranian politics. He is and was a good friend of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, but at the same time had the stature to be able to criticize his and other policies. And yes, with him gone, people will see that it will be harder to voice certain criticisms.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran.
Thank you so much for being with us.
ERDBRINK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.