On Sunday 8 January, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani died. He was one of the founding figures of the Iranian Islamic revolution, having led in Iran the underground Islamist movement that Ayatollah Khomeini controlled from Paris. When Khomeini returned to Iran in 1979 Rafsanjani played a key role in hijacking the popular protests against the shah and concealing Khomeini’s true agenda from them. In doing so he followed the Islamic doctrine of taqiyya, which is particularly strong in Shi’a Islam, whereby one may conceal one’s true beliefs in order to obtain an advantage. Thus he played a major role in helping Iran become the world’s first Islamist state, a model that was to inspire the rise of Islamist movements in the West. It was later followed by the creation of other Islamist states such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet, the 1979 Iranian revolution which Rafsanjani helped bring about was the first.
Despite this, Western media repeatedly refer to Rafsanjani as a “moderate”. In fact, he was nothing of the sort. During the early years of the revolution, and also when he was president between 1989–97, Christians suffered terribly and thousands fled the country. Those who were killed at the hands of the Iranian state at that time included prominent Iranian Christian leaders such as Hossein Soodmand – an Assemblies of God pastor who in 1990 was sentenced to death by a sharia court and executed because he was a convert from Islam – and Bishop Haik Hovsepian, an Armenian Christian who courageously spoke to the international press about the persecution of Christians in Iran and was murdered in 1994, almost certainly at the hands of the Iranian government.
The truth is that Rafsanjani was never a moderate. He was a pragmatist who saw that Iran needed at least some relationship with the West if its economy was not going to collapse. At times, as his government sought to build relations with the West, it tried to give the impression of a more tolerant approach to Christians. For example, in 1994 Mehdi Dibaj, a Christian convert from Islam who had been sentenced to death by a sharia court for apostasy, was released from prison. However, within months he was found mysteriously hanged from a tree, in all likelihood at the hands of the Rafsanjani government.
So where does Rafsanjani’s death leave Iranian Christians? Rafsanjani had long been engaged in a political power struggle with Ayatollah Khamenei who succeeded Khomeini as supreme religious leader. Consequently, he backed factions opposed to Khamenei, including some reformists. By doing so he acted as a brake on some of the more extreme Islamists in the Iranian political and clerical establishment. However, now that that brake has been removed, persecution is likely to increase for Iranian Christians, who were already facing a crackdown. At least 79 Christians were arrested between May and August last year, a number of whom have been charged with apostasy from Islam.