But Rafsanjani’s more pragmatic streak began to emerge when he served as speaker of the Majlis, or parliament, for eight years. He sought Khomeini’s help to mediate sharp difference between a parliament committed to radical economic redistribution, and a constitutional watch-dog body, the Guardian Council, that insisted on a conservative interpretation of Islamic law. In the mid-1980s, he was the critical player on the Iranian side in the Iran-Contra affair, when the United States, under President Ronald Reagan, agreed to provide Iran with anti-tank and surface-to-surface missiles in exchange for the release of American hostages held by Iranian surrogates in Lebanon.
During the Iran-Iraq war, some argue that Rafsanjani emerged as a clear voice for peace. After a series of dramatic offensives in 1982, Iranian forces had succeeded in pushing Iraq back across the border. Khomeini’s inner circle debated over whether to continue the war on Iraqi territory in order to take Baghdad and punish the then-leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, or to end the war, having resecured Iran’s borders; the former camp won out. That decision proved disastrous: The war dragged on another six years, with terrible human costs. While Rafsanjani’s role in ending the war remains the subject of great debate in Iran to this today, he is believed to have stood with the peace party, and is credited with finally persuading to end the war Khomeini in 1988. Rafsanjani, the pragmatist, realized Iran was exhausted and the war could not be won. On the other hand, there is no indication that he opposed the bloody massacre of thousands of members of left-wing opposition groups already in Iranian prisons near the end of the war.
Rafsanjani also served as head of the Expediency Council, a group that advises the supreme leader on policy, and was a long-term member of the Assembly of Experts, the body that selects the supreme leader. After Khomeini’s death in 1989, Rafsanjani helped engineer the selection of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, as his successor, a choice that Rafsanjani conveniently claimed Khomeini had endorsed on this death bed. Rafsanjani and like-minded members of the inner circle may have thought Khamenei would be pliant; they would soon be disabused of this assumption.
Following Khomeini’s death, Rafsanjani became president in elections in 1989. As president, he tried to ease social controls, open up the economy to the private sector, and improve relations with the outside world, particularly the United States. He also launched a program of reconstruction to deal with the physical damage inflicted by the war with Iraq. Pursuing ties with the United States, he offered a billion-dollar contract to the American oil firm Conoco—a deal that was blocked by President Bill Clinton, for reasons that remain unclear. Rafsanjani’s government also eased social controls: Women were freer to choose their style of Islamic head covering and to wear makeup in public, young men and women could mix more freely in public, and the revolution-era ban on music was eased. Rafsanjani’s minister of culture, Mohammad Khatami, lifted many controls over book publishing, film-making, and theater performances. Rafsanjani, however, displayed little interest in easing controls over the press and political activity.