There could hardly a worse time for Iran to lose its powerful moderating figure, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has died aged 82. The easing of tensions between Iran and the West in recent years, which culminated in the nuclear deal agreed with the United States and other Western nations, was already under enough threat from the result of the US election. All Republican candidates, including Donald Trump, excoriated President Barrack Obama's Iran agreement during the campaign and its chances of surviving Trump's inauguration next week look slim.
Its cancellation would be welcome news to hard-liners in Teheran. Not even the calming hand of Rafsanjani might have been able to halt Iran from turning nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material, but the prospects were more hopeful while he was alive. He was one of the founders of the Islamic Republic after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, when he was an aide to Ayatollah Khomeni. Rafsanjani became Iran's President in 1989, served two terms to 1997 and since then he has been on the Assembly of Experts that selects the Ayatollah's successors as Supreme Leader.
The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is on the moderate Rafsanjani side of Iran's politics, which is one reason the nuclear deal could be done. But Khamenei is 77 and has had treatment for prostate cancer. He might be in no condition to support President Hassan Rouhani, a Rafsanjani protege, when the President seeks re-election in May this year.
Iran appears delicately poised between the Islamic nationalist hard-liners who held sway until a few years ago, and the largely urban, pro-western, well-educated society that has been given hope of regaining its liberties in recent years. It will depend crucially on Donald Trump whether this hope remains, or whether all signs of progress are dashed, both within Iran and in thawing of its relations with the West.
Rafsanjani's death will not help persuade the incoming US Administration that Iran is changing. Nor will his death help Trump negotiate a more rigorously monitored nuclear agreement, if that has been his intention. It probably makes his job harder than the task Obama faced when the present deal was done. But it must be hoped, for the sake of a safer world, that Trump can be persuaded to say or do nothing impetuous that would only play into the hands of hard-liners in Teheran.
He might be persuaded by Russia's President Vladimir Putin who needs to keep Iran onside with his plans for a settlement of the Syrian civil war. Iran has been an ally of the Assad regime, like Russia, and they are discussing Syria's future with Turkey, which is no friend of Assad. Trump will want to join those talks, mainly to ensure Isis gains nothing from a settlement. To be included, he might have to treat Iran carefully.
But Iran deserves encouragement for more than geopolitical reasons. It contains one of the world's great civilisations. If today's literate, cultivated Iranians can cast off the religious fundamentalism of their revolution, they and the world would be culturally richer