TEHRAN (AFP) – Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pugnacious political survivor despite his support for moderates, died on Sunday after suffering a heart attack, news agencies reported.
Rafsanjani, who was 82, was a pivotal figure in the foundation of the Islamic republic in 1979, and served as president from 1989 to 1997.
He had been admitted to the Shohadaa Hospital in northern Tehran, one of his relatives, Hossein Marashi, was quoted as saying by the agencies.
“Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was transferred to hospital after a heart attack,” Reza Soleimani, a speaker of the Expediency Council, Iran s main political arbitration body which Rafsanjani chaired.
“Despite the efforts of the doctors he died,” he said, quoted by state broadcaster IRIB.
Rafsanjani s death is a huge loss for both reformists and moderates, as he stood as a pillar for the two camps.
All state television channels branded a black ribbon on the corner of the screen in a sign of mourning.
A growing crowd of people had formed outside the Shohadaa hospital, despite police warnings, blocking Tehran s Valiasr Avenue, media reported.
His body was later transferred to Jamaran hospital.
Rafsanjani was born on August 25, 1934 in the village of Nough in southern Iran into a wealthy family.
He studied theology in the holy city of Qom before entering politics in 1963 after the shah s police arrested the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
A confidant of Khomeini, Rafsanjani was the speaker of parliament for two consecutive terms until Khomeini s death in 1989.
Rafsanjani s presidency, a breathing space after the end of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, was marked by reconstruction, cautious reform and repairs to Iran s relations with its Arab neighbours.
But it was also marred by human rights violations, rampant inflation and difficult relations with Europe, not least with Britain after the “death sentence”, or fatwa, handed down to writer Salman Rushdie by Khomeini.
After serving a maximum two consecutive terms, Rafsanjani played an important role in the election of the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who succeeded him as president from 1997 to 2005.
Rafsanjani sought a return to the presidency in 2005 but lost to hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a conservative backlash.
It was a bitter defeat, but rather than retreating from public view, he remained in the limelight.
Rafsanjani emerged as a moderate counter-figure to the ultra-hardliners clustered around Ahmadinejad — under whom Iran s relations with the West plummeted — and criticised the crackdown that followed Ahmadinejad s disputed re-election in 2009.
In recent years though, his influence within state institutions had waned.
In 2013, his candidacy for the presidential election was rejected because of his advanced age.
The next year he delivered crucial support for the eventual winner, Hassan Rouhani, a moderate with whom he has a warm rapport.
He was an important backer of the deal Rouhani struck with world powers for sanctions to be lifted in exchange for curbs on Iran s nuclear programme.
Rafsanjani was always a member of Iran s top clerical body, the Assembly of Experts, charged with appointing — and if required dismissing — the country s supreme leader.
Rafsanjani chaired the influential committee for several years.
He also held the chairmanship of the Expediency Council, since 1990, when he was appointed by Khomeini s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The supreme leader will have to appoint a new chairman for the body.