In Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, he describes a “general rule” of politics that “never or rarely fails.” “He who is the cause of another becoming powerful,” Machiavelli wrote, “is ruined. Because that predominancy has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.” This is an apt political epitaph for former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at age 82. In 1989, nearly 500 years after The Prince was published, Rafsanjani helped anoint his longtime comrade Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as supreme leader of Iran. He would spend the next three decades of his life trying, unsuccessfully, to wrestle power back from the man he enthroned.
The Rafsanjani-Khamenei friendship-cum-rivalry resembles a Shiite Shakespearean drama. It began over five decades ago, when both were acolytes of the Ayatollah Khomeini who traded their seminary studies for a life of political agitation against the monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Both men spent years in and out of prison in the 1960s and 1970s, Rafsanjani for his alleged role in the assassination of Iranian Prime Minister Hassan Ali Mansur in 1965. While Khamenei used his time in prison to translate the works of Egyptian militant Islamist Sayed Qutb, Rafsanjani wrote a book about a 19th-century nationalist prime minister named Amir Kabir, who had been assassinated. Fellow prisoner Abbas Milani, now a scholar at Stanford University, recalled that Rafsanjani was also an “enthusiastic but clumsy volleyballer.”