TEHRAN, Iran: Hundreds of thousands of mourners flooded the streets of Tehran on Tuesday, beating their chests and wailing in grief for the late Iranian leader Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died over the weekend at the age of 82.
The crowds filled main thoroughfares of the capital as top government and clerical officials held a funeral service at Tehran University. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei held prayers by Rafsanjani's casket, as other dignitaries knelt before the coffin on which his white cleric's turban was placed, reaching their hands out for one final embrace.
Just behind Khamenei was President Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate administration led the recent nuclear negotiations with world powers. Rouhani, who is all but certain to run for re-election in May, is viewed as embodying Rafsanjani's realist vision.
Hard-liners also took part in the ceremony Tuesday, which was a public holiday across the country. Among them was Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations like the war in Syria.
Both Soleimani and Rafsanjani are from Iran's southeastern province of Kerman and worked together during the 1980s war against Iraq war.
Apparently banned from the funeral was former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who remains popular among the young but is deeply disliked by hard-liners. State media have banned the broadcasting of any images of Khatami.
Outside, mourners carried posters bearing Rafsanjani's image as his casket slowly made his way through the streets.
"I rarely attend religious ceremonies, but I am here as an Iranian who cannot forget Rafsanjani's contribution to developing political sphere in favor of people in recent years," said Nima Sheikhi, a computer teacher at a private school.
Nearby was cleric Reza Babaei from the eastern town of Birjand near Afghan border. "I am here to say goodbye to a man who dedicated his life to make Iran better," Babaei said. "He founded the university in my city and developed our region when he was in power."
Many in the crowds chanted that they would continue along Rafsanjani's "path."
The semi-official ILNA news agency said that on the sidelines of the funeral ceremony, prominent moderate lawmaker Ali Motahari was asked by several mourners to free opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi from house arrest the two have been under since 2011.
"Our message is clear, the house arrest should be lifted," some chanted. The police and security forces did not react to the chants.
Rafsanjani's casket was heading to the ornate, massive shrine of the late Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini. There, he will be buried by the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution that overthrew the rule of the American-backed shah.
Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Khomeini and Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997.
His life mirrored Iran's modern history. He served as the right-hand man of Khomeini. He led the military during the ruinous war with Iraq in the 1980s. He helped launch Iran's nuclear program and then pushed for reconciliation with the West.
In the years after Khomeini's 1989 death, Rafsanjani represented one of an ever-shrinking number of leaders directly tied to the Islamic Revolution.
Internally, however, his legacy remains mixed. He was massively wealthy and a veteran at maneuvering within Iran's opaque political system.
He was considered a protector of the moderates, but many reformers distrusted him because he was such an insider and because of accusations he was involved in killing dissidents during his eight-year presidency, which he always denied. Hard-liners distrusted him because of his support of moderates and sought to sideline him, but he was too powerful and entrenched to be discounted.
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