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Rafsanjani’s Thorny Legacy

The former Iranian president, who died last Sunday, was once indicted in connection to the 1994 AMIA bombing—the deadliest massacre of Jews anywhere since World War II

Armin Rosen
January 10, 2017
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Mourners attend the funeral of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjanii, Tehran, Iran, January 10, 2017. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Mourners attend the funeral of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjanii, Tehran, Iran, January 10, 2017. Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

The July 18, 1994 bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires is an appropriate starting place for understanding the impact of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, who died of a heart attack last Sunday. The bombing, still the deadliest massacre of Jews anywhere since World War II, was the work of Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Lebanese terrorist group. The Hezbollah cell that carried out the attack received decisive operational assistance from Mohsen Rabbani, the Iranian embassy’s long-serving cultural attache in Buenos Aires. According to the late Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, authorization for the atrocity went far higher than just the embassy. Citing Iranian intelligence defectors and other sources, Nisman’s 2006 arrest warrants related to the attack assert that Iran’s Committee for Special Operations signed off on the bombing during an August 13, 1993, meeting in the Iranian city of Mashhad. Rafsanjani, who was then Iran’s president, chaired the gathering, which Rabbani reportedly attended; the ex-president was one of seven Iranian officials that Argentina eventually indicted in connection to the bombing. Rafsanjani isn’t just alleged to have presided over the government that funded and organized the AMIA attack—he also knew about the specific plot well in advance, and gave the official final go-ahead.

Remembrances of Rafsanjani treat the AMIA massacre as if it’s incidental to his broader career. The New York Times obituary makes fleeting reference to “Argentina ….[accusing] Mr. Rafsanjani and other senior Iranian figures of complicity in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires;” in The Atlantic, an essay on the Rafsanjani’s “long career” doesn’t mention the attack at all. Yet the AMIA bombing encapsulates why Rafsanjani was so significant: He succeeded in convincing observers of his moderation at the same time his government funded a globe-spanning terrorist network and helped make the Islamic Republic into an ever-more mainstream member of the international community without sacrificing the regime’s ideological trappings or expansionist aims.

Rafsanjani was one of the founders of Iran’s revolutionary regime, and served as speaker of the Majlis and de-facto commander-in-chief of the country’s military throughout the turbulent 1980s. During this span, Rafsanjani reportedly pushed for a negotiated solution to the Iran-Iraq war, but also deeply involved in the assassination of several exiled Iranian dissidents over the course of the decade. Rafsanjani’s reputation as a moderate largely comes from his attempts to break Iran out of its economic and diplomatic isolation during his presidency, which spanned from 1989 to 1997, and his support of Mir Hossein Moussavi, the pro-reform candidate who was declared the loser in Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. Rafsanjani became a political opponent of some of the regime’s hardliners, but his reputation as a potential bridge between Iran and its enemies is belied by his life-long bellicosity towards Israel: He fantasized about the nuclear annihilation of the Jewish state during a Quds Day speech in 2001, and was promising Israel’s eventual destruction as late as 2015. Rafsanjani was also a critical figure in engineering the hardliner Ali Khamenei’s ascension to Supreme Leader after regime founder Ruhollah Khomeini’s death in 1989.

Rafsanjani’s efforts made the Islamic Republican regime a more durable and successful enterprise, a project that, probably not incidentally, made him fabulously wealthy. After overseeing a spate of market reforms as president, Rafsanjani reportedly had billions of dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts by 2003. Rafsanjani pioneered the brand of obfuscation, kleptocracy, survivalism, and international terrorism that characterize the present-day Iranian regime, which has pursued an aggressive foreign policy and resisted any serious internal reform while also enjoying dramatically improved relations with the U.S. and Europe. As a measure of Rafsanjani’s importance, and a sign of the political and historical continuity that marked his diverse career, the AMIA attack co-conspirator will reportedly be buried in the same Tehran mausoleum as Khomeini himself.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.