Reports of the former Iranian president’s death have almost unanimously described him as the leader of a “moderate” faction within the Islamic Republic—one who wished for better relations with the West, paid only lip service to religious fanaticism, and could be induced through skillful diplomacy to move Tehran away from terrorism and anti-Americanism. None of this is true, writes Michael Rubin:
Rafsanjani signed off on attacks like the 1994 bombing of the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires and assassinations of Iranian dissidents worldwide. He not only helped birth Iran’s covert nuclear-weapons program but, on December 14, 2001, speculated that it could be for offense rather than defense since, unlike Israel, Iran had strategic depth to absorb a retaliatory strike. While he was willing to talk to Americans and Europeans, this had less to do with a desire for rapprochement than with his recognition that dialogue could relieve economic pressure on the Islamic Republic and win it what it needed for the fulfillment of its indigenous military programs.
Was Rafsanjani a moderate or even reformer? . . . In reality, it is useful to think about the Islamic Republic’s politicians as falling between two axes: one with regard to social attitudes and tolerance and the other with regard to a belief in state-centered economies versus economic liberalism. Rafsanjani sought to reduce the centralized command structure of Iran’s economy, [and in that respect he] leaned toward economic pragmatism. Even during his presidency, though, he was unsuccessful in implementing significant economic reform. When it came to social reform, however, Rafsanjani’s more moderate rhetoric did not translate into any desire or real effort to blunt the edge or fervor of the Islamic Revolution. . . . Another way to think about that is that if Rafsanjani was a moderate, . . . then moderation in the Islamic Republic includes an embrace of incitement to genocide, assassination, torture, and terrorism. . . .
[Western diplomats’] desire to [misapprehend] factional struggles expands beyond just Iran. Talk to European or even American diplomats who work in the Middle East about Hizballah or Hamas, and they will describe a nuanced view that divides the movements into hardline and more pragmatic factions. The fact that those moderate Hamas factions still embrace a covenant that calls for genocide against Jews is left unsaid.