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Whither Iran without Rafsanjani?

Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's death from a heart attack earlier this month could be a pivotal moment for Iran that should offer a moment of pause for both the Middle Eastern nation and its international interlocutors. A moderate voice and a pillar of the revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979, he ranks next only to the late Ayatollah Khomeini in the pantheon of modern Iranian leaders. As Speaker of Parliament between 1980 and 1989, when he ascended to the presidency, Ayatollah Rafsanjani came to notice as a man who had control over all sections of the House. Within the theocratic establishment, his views were the least flinty and he had a vision of the world that recognised the need for his nation to tone down its adversarial reflexes for a more constructive line on the West.

It is of little surprise, therefore, that, while he lived to a full 82 years, many within and outside his country would have wished him a longer life, or at least that he lived until the presidential elections due in May. The more than two million people who turned up for his funeral, where the funeral prayers were led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, suggest the wider urge for a middle path. Mr Khamenei, a hardliner, now has Mr Rafsanjani's restraining hand off his wrist. This may be a matter of relief for him, but Iran is the poorer for it, especially at a time when the incoming President of the United States has vowed to tear up the deal which his predecessor struck with Teheran on easing sanctions in return for halting its nuclear programme.

This makes it even more vital that President Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani protege, get a second term and continue to be his own man. Aside from Syria, and Oman to a degree, Shi'ite-dominated Iran has few friends in the largely Sunni Muslim region. The Barack Obama opening that saw the lifting of most Western sanctions was a relief valve that should, in its own interests, be kept open. The months ahead will require careful diplomacy, given Mr Trump's visceral attitude towards Teheran. Recent tensions between Iranian and US navy vessels in the Strait of Hormuz presage a bothersome period for the region.

As a proud, civilisational nation in a tough neighbourhood, it has been difficult for the former Persia to countenance curbs on its security arrangements. But the West, and Iran's neighbours, even if they are no friends of Teheran, must acknowledge that, thus far, the nuclear deal has worked satisfactorily. It would befit Saudi Arabia, Iran's biggest rival for regional influence, and other Arab states, to seek and maintain a working relationship with Teheran. For its part, Mr Rafsanjani's legacy of pragmatism would demand of Iran that it eschews an international world view based on Shi'ite exceptionalism. As in almost every situation, it takes two hands to clap.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'Whither Iran without Rafsanjani?'. Subscribe