Death of Iran's Rafsanjani: Gulf mourns – but Arab social media is less forgiving

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There was no word from Riyadh, Tehran's main Arab adversary, and Arabic social media was in no mood to pass on condolences

Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani attends Iran's Assembly of Experts biannual meeting in Tehran, Iran on 8 March, 2011 (Reuters)
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Monday 9 January 2017 20:20 UTC
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Four Gulf states sent condolences on Monday following the death of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, signalling appreciation for a pragmatist who sought regional detente.

But there was no immediate word from Riyadh, Tehran's main Gulf Arab adversary, while Arabic social media was unforgiving.

Rafsanjani, a key figure in the foundation of the Islamic Republic who was president from 1989 to 1997, died on Sunday aged 82.

His funeral will be held in Tehran on Tuesday, which has been declared a public holiday as part of three days of mourning.

Called for ties with Arab states

Iran's interventions in the Arab world are seen by critics as having fuelled a decade of violence and turmoil across the region, but Rafsanjani, a key figure in the 1979 revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, routinely called for improved ties with Gulf Arab states.

He was known to have good relations with senior Saudi officials and was seen as a key figure who could have resolved rising tensions between the regional rivals in the coming years.

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Writing on his official Twitter account, UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash described Rafsanjani as "one of the voices of political realism and moderation".

Translation: "Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has died, he was one of the voices of Iranian political realism and moderation. His name is linked with the republic and the revolution against the shah."

Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, whose country has tense relations with Iran, voiced condolences on Twitter over Rafsanjani's death.

Translation: "May God have mercy on Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president of the Islamic Republic of Iran"

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu offered condolences on Twitter, saying he was "deeply saddened" by Rafsanjani's death.

Riyadh accuses Tehran of fomenting trouble in Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia itself. Tehran accuses Riyadh of plotting its destruction with Washington.

In an interview in August 2015, Rafsanjani told the Al Monitor website that Iran did not inherently have problems with Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries "because they are Islamic and we see cooperation with them as a priority in our constitution".

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He was quoted as saying events in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain were among a number of issues that had created "a distance", but that if Iranian and Arabic governments decided to work together, then it would be possible to normalise the situation.

"I really believe it is possible. However, we have to see where these events lead, which is very important," he was quoted as saying.

Condolence messages also came from pro-Iranian Arab forces include Lebanon's Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi group. “We lost a great man among the elderly figures of the Islamic Ummah (community),” Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a message, according to the Arabic-language al-Ahed news website.

Arabic media less sympathetic

But users of Arabic social media were less forgiving than their governments, due to Iran's deep involvement in political and military conflicts across the Arab world since 2011, not least in Syria where Tehran is accused of amplifying the sectarian dimension of the civil war.

Rafsanjani's reputation as a reformist - by domestic Iranian standards - did little to improve the online response to his death.

Hussein al-Muaeyed, a former Iraqi Shia cleric who changed his sect to Sunni Islam, tweeted: "It is not important whether Rafsanjani dies or lives many more years, for he was a cornerstone of a hostile, sectarian regime that has oppressed its own people and ravaged the global Islamic community. The important thing is that his death marks its (the regime's) downfall."

Hussein al-Muaeyed's tweet

Meanwhile some Arab journalist-activists pointed to the increasingly Persian chauvinist aspect of Iran's relationship with the Arab world.

Translation: "The Persian racist Rafsanjani has died, he once described Arabs as Roma in Iranian newspapers. Hopefully the butcher Khameini will die soon as well."

Others challenged Rafsanjani's reformist credentials, drawing attention to the former president's role in the 1988 prison massacre that led to the execution of some thousands of political prisoners and Sunni clerics.

Translation: "Did you know that Rafsanjani was an advisor to Khomeini in the 1988 massacre that killed 30,000 politicians?!! And now Tawfiq al-Seif (Saudi commentator) prays for mercy for him and considers him a reformist?!!"

Al-Azhar Mosque criticised

But the reaction was not uniform - some social media users criticised Sunni institutions for not mourning more.

One account attacked Egypt's al-Azhar Mosque, considered Sunni Islam's most prestigious institute, for refusing to declare its condolences for the deceased president.

Translation: Until now al-Azhar Mosque, which we do not know when the last time it was honourable, has not passed on condolences for the death of Ayatollah Rafsanjani!! Knowing that the late sheikh was one the pillars of Islamic jurisprudence."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.