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Editorial: The Untimely Death of an Iranian Pragmatist

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Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2016.

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Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency, via Getty Images

Relations between the United States and Iran, which improved under President Obama to the point where the two sides were able to strike a nuclear deal, were already facing an uncertain future under Donald Trump, who has taken a tough line against Tehran. The death on Sunday of Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has increased this uncertainty. A moderate in Iran’s factional political struggles, Ayatollah Rafsanjani worked hard to soften its anti-Americanism and encourage constructive engagement with the West.

Ayatollah Rafsanjani played a major role in getting Hassan Rouhani, a reformer, elected president. He was instrumental in persuading Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to agree to the 2015 deal, under which Iran has curbed its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

His absence leaves Mr. Rouhani and other moderates without a powerful champion and eminence gris capable of standing up to and outmaneuvering forces determined to keep the West at bay. Some experts say Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s death could also mean that the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, charged with maintaining Iran’s revolutionary character, will play a larger role in selecting a successor to Ayatollah Khamenei, who is ailing.

A pragmatic and skilled behind-the-scenes operator, Ayatollah Rafsanjani remained committed to the revolution that deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi but felt that establishing relations with the United States was the best way to ensure the future of Iran’s theocratic system.

To that end, he advocated not only a warmer attitude toward the West but also more personal freedoms and free-market reforms at home. He sometimes ran afoul of the hard-liners, but generally got away with it because of his close ties with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who spearheaded the 1979 revolution, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Despite his considerable influence, Ayatollah Rafsanjani was blocked from running for president himself in 2013. But his support helped secure the election of Mr. Rouhani, as it had for Mohammad Khatami, a former president who has been sidelined by conservative opponents for years. Without Ayatollah Rafsanjani’s help, Mr. Rouhani may have a tougher time winning re-election in May.

Mr. Rouhani has other problems apart from the loss of a valued ally. He promised Iranians that he would turn around the economy, which had suffered from sanctions imposed by the United States and other major powers, including lack of access to the international financial system. Many of these sanctions were lifted after the nuclear deal, and foreign businesses seem eager to do business. But the country has not seen the quick growth many expected and Mr. Rouhani had hoped for.

Mr. Trump has vowed to tear up the nuclear deal. He has threatened to make sure that Revolutionary Guards boats in the Persian Gulf are “shot out of the water” if they “make gestures” at American destroyers there. He has chosen a national security adviser and a C.I.A. director who are both adamantly opposed to the deal, regardless of the consequences of ending it. And his nominee for defense secretary has made it clear that he views Iran as the primary threat.

It makes no sense to create a crisis with Iran where none exists and to kill an agreement that even Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and once a leading opponent of the deal, says would be prudent to enforce. One result would be to undercut the voices of moderation that, after years of hostility, Washington should be most eager to encourage.

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